Drastic safety changes made in NHL over 10 years

Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore is attended to by the team trainer after being injured by Vancouver Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi. (Chuck Stoody/CP)

PEBBLE BEACH — It has become hockey’s strange dichotomy.

While multitudes of people on the outside fringes of the game are obsessed with its “culture of violence” and calling for the abolishment of fighting, the people inside the game are playing it cool, almost pretending not to hear the noise.

Every time director of player safety Brendan Shanahan metes out a suspension, the voices that shout “Not long enough!” tend to carry the day. Then the National Hockey League’s Board of Governors meets, and they unanimously clap Shanahan on the back.

“The sense of the room is that Brendan Shanahan … has the confidence of the board of governors. He certainly has my confidence,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at the conclusion of two days of meetings. “It’s about modifying an element of the game’s culture and we think we’ve made positive, dramatic steps forward.”

There was no call among the owners to increase suspension length, and the subject of fighting’s place in the game “didn’t come up” here, according to one GM. And on the eve of Shanahan handing down what could be a precedent-setting suspension to Shawn Thornton, the voices we spoke with here will tell you, what impacts them the most about Thornton on Brooks Orpik is that an act that violent has become a jaw-dropping event in hockey.

“Go back to some of the old clips,” began veteran New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello. “I don’t know what we would be thinking today, if the game was played the way it was 10, 15 years ago.”

On March 8 hockey will mark the 10-year anniversary of Todd Bertuzzi’s attack on Steve Moore. Since then, violent attacks have become so rare that it is impossible not to say that hockey has progressively become a safer game for players.

Inside the New Jersey dressing room recently, someone cued up the video of the final game of the 2000 Stanley Cup Final, when the Devils beat Dallas. It was warfare, compared to the way the game is played today.

“That game today, I don’t know how many players would have not been suspended,” Lamoriello said. “It was incredible. I remember going to the hospital after the game to see Petr Sykora. He got hit, and that was a minor thing compared to how the game was played then.”

In a time of immediate gratification, the trend of those who critique the game seldom includes a long look back at the big picture. (Guilty as charged, your Honour.) That is why we choose, whenever possible, to ask questions of men like Lamoriello, the Devils GM since 1997. Or Nashville’s David Poile, a second generation NHL exec who has, as we like say, forgotten more about the game than we’ll ever know.

“The type of thing that (James) Neal did, I can’t even remember seeing a thing like that for (a long time),” Poile said. “And Shawn Thornton… he’s already said he made a mistake, and he’s going to pay for that. I don’t think that stuff will happen very much. You can’t say ‘never,’ because it’s a physical game and that’s partially why we like it. But we’ve certainly come so far.

“I mean, look where we were? The stuff that happened in the so-called old days, to where we are now? It’s so much better for the players, and a so much better game.”

Even Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, whose Big Bad Bruins find themselves in Shanahan’s wheelhouse on a regular basis, professes his satisfaction with the suspension process.

In another strange contradiction, while fighting is slowly but surely evolving out of the game using the death by 1,000 cuts approach, if acts like Thornton’s persist the we may see a “death penalty” of sorts in Shanahan’s future.

“The safety committee, the enforcement committee, they’re doing everything they can,” Lamoriello said. “The responsibility has to be on the players as well. This is their game as well. They have to have respect for each other.

“Sooner or later, somebody is going to miss a season (to suspension). Maybe that fear will stop what we do see, and what liberties are taken.”

Or at least, suspensions will trend longer and longer for repeat offenders. “We'll get to that point some day,” agreed Chiarelli. “I don't know if it's this year, but I think it's trending that way.”

Chatting with an executive here Thursday, he offered this opinion on Orpik-Thornton: “If Orpik (who had injured Bruin Loui Eriksson with a hit) would have just fought Thornton when he first wanted to, it would have diffused the whole thing. Orpik’s a big, strong guy. Just hold on tight and get it over with.”

I mentioned that, today, you can think that way. But you’re not allowed to say it. He agreed.

That alone is change, whether you are the type to acknowledge it or not.