By Matt Popchock
On the eve of a new hockey season in Pittsburgh, the burning question is, when will Sidney Crosby, who seems to be rehabilitating comfortably, finally return? The burning fear is, when the Penguins' captain does come back, what sort of National Hockey League will he be coming back to?
We've all had plenty of time to speculate on the former, but in any event, the latter is of less concern to me now than ever before. For that you can thank future Hall-of-Famer and new NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan, the man solely responsible for canceling Canada's favorite game show, "Wheel of Punishment."
Conventional wisdom says it is in the DNA of hockey players to seek infirmities and to target any that may be known for competitive advantage. What will happen the next time someone trying to send a message or make a name for himself--or simply being an idiot--targets the notorious noggin of Crosby, the face of the franchise?
None of us want to find out. Shanahan is clearly doing his absolute best to make sure we never will:
*He suspended Jean-Francois Jacques of the Anaheim Ducks for the remainder of the preseason and five regular season games for leaving the bench to fight Mike Duco of the Vancouver Canucks.
*He suspended Tom Sesito of Philadelphia two preseason and regular season games for a hit to the head of the Rangers' Andre Deveaux.
*He suspended Brendan Smith of Detroit the remainder of the preseason and five regular season games for a hit to the head of Ben Smith of Chicago.
*He suspended Clarke MacArthur of Toronto the remainder of the preseason and two regular season games for a hit to the head of the Red Wings' Justin Abdelkader.
*He chose not to suspend former Penguin Ryan Malone for a hit to the head of Chris Campoli of Montreal, a decision he called "[his] most difficult to date."
My most difficult decision is what I like better--the fact these aren't the only instances of Shanahan shortening the leash on players who have behaved callously over the past few weeks of exhibition hockey, or the fact he actually takes the time to carefully explain each of his own decisions.
Shanahan never played a single second in a Penguin uniform, but at this rate, I'll gladly wear his replica jersey, however heretical Ranger blue, Devil green, or Detroit red makes me look in this town.
For all the times the NHL has dropped the ball (or, dropped the puck, as it were), it's hard to believe the league would have the wherewithal to hire Shanahan to replace Colin Campbell, an ex-goon who was too emotionally invested and too rooted in his own past to do his job effectively.
Nevertheless, the NHL and its fans will benefit from putting disciplinary power in the hands of Shanahan, a man who "played the game of hockey, Joe," and a man, therefore, who understands that, with all we now know about the human brain, the league must place greater urgency on protecting it.
A rule is only as effective as its standard of enforcement, which doesn't always seem to have improved since the 2004-05 lockout, despite Shanahan's influence at the time. By that same token, the most important rule on the books these days, when it comes to player safety, is Rule 48, governing head contact. Now that Shanahan is in a position of authority, he has an opportunity to change the game for the better, and so far he's taking full advantage.
He's tactful, he's decisive, and most importantly...he's consistent. He's helping create an NHL that doesn't tolerate thuggery, and he's walking the walk while talking the talk.
As Crosby pointed out during his own press conference Sept. 7, only about fifty of the roughly 50,000 recorded hits during the 2010-11 season were to the head. The simple fact that, eight months later, one of the best players in the NHL is still M.I.A., suggests there's no place for those fifty hits, and Shanahan knows it. He also knows removing those plays from the game will not cheapen its entertainment value at all.
The 2011-12 regular season is still little more than 24 hours away, and already Shanahan has levied nine suspensions totaling 31 games and over $700,000 in fines.
Anybody still want to hit Crosby up high?
Memo to Neanderthals, knuckle-draggers, and general punks everywhere who would dare threaten the neurological health of the National Hockey League's meal ticket, or any other player, in the future:
In the famous words of Rockwell, somebody's watching you.
Be sure to keep visiting 937thefan.com, including Casey Shea's "Shea-ved Ice" blog, and tune into SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan to follow the Penguins as they get set to drop the puck on the 2011-12 regular season.
Be sure to also download the CBS Pittsburgh app for your mobile device, for easy access to all our Penguins coverage!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)
for more features.