PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The salary cap is going up and business is booming, but still the NHL often gets the most attention for ugly stuff that happens on the ice.
Ugly was front and centre Saturday night during the Boston Bruins-Pittsburgh Penguins game that led to two suspensions and three players on the injured list. But instead of expressing concern over Shawn Thornton and James Neal, the league’s board of governors gave vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan a thumbs up for his handling of discipline.
"I believe the sense of the room is that Brendan Shanahan and the department of player safety has the confidence of the board of governors. He certainly has my confidence," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "It’s about modifying an element of the game’s culture and we think we’ve made positive, dramatic steps forward."
When Thornton is suspended following an in-person hearing Friday, it will be the 19th ban this season that costs players at least one regular-season game. The first 18 suspensions added up to 77 games, including Neal’s five for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head.
But Shanahan told the board Tuesday that among roughly 55,000 hits over the course of a year, only 50 to 100 are problematic. General managers have noticed a major change over time.
"You're not going to rid yourself of suspensions and what have you, but we've certainly come so much farther," Nashville Predators GM David Poile said. "I mean, look where we were. I've been around for a long time, and some of 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."
It's a different game, too. Some of the same hits that used to be acceptable are now spelled out as illegal.
Shanahan has taken to producing videos showing examples, something that earned praise from Bettman.
"My guess is people don't analyse the things he does in the detail that he does, and if you study the videos that he's put online, the specific instances where supplemental discipline is imposed or the more general tapes that he's put online explaining what the standards are of play, people should take a great deal of comfort that we're being extraordinarily proactive," Bettman said.
The next step could be harsher punishments as more of a deterrent for players. But general managers didn't display much of an appetite for change in that regard.
"If managers and the board of governors want the suspensions to increase, I think that that's a direction they'll certainly give me," Shanahan said. "I can say from my perspective that I think that players do feel the effect of the suspension. Whether it's two games or a lot more games, I think that players don't like being in that position, they don't like the game being taken away from them."
General managers don't want the game taken away from its roots, either. Shanahan gave his usual update on player safety on the second and final day of the board of governors meeting at the Inn at Spanish Bay, and Peter Chiarelli of the Boston Bruins emphasized that the league can absolutely have hitting and progress with safety at the same time.
"You can have both and you should, and there's a respect factor that the players have to adapt, and they are," Chiarelli said. "There's a physical component to the game. It's just going to be a continuing challenge. You're going to have discussions like these, you're going to have incidents like these. It may be longer suspensions, but you can't have a physical game without having these things."
New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said Monday evening that the onus is on players to follow the rules. It's his hope that maybe the fear of a season-long suspension will stop some of the violence around the league.
Poile believes the incidents in the Penguins and Bruins game represented much more of an isolated incident than a trend.
"I would think that the type of thing that Neal did, I can't even remember seeing something like that," Poile said. "And Shawn Thornton, he seems to be a stand-up guy, always seems to play his role really well. He's already said he made a mistake, and he's going to pay for that. He knows that. And I don't think that stuff is going to happen very much. You can't say 'never,' because it's a physical game and that's why we partially like the game. Stuff is going to happen."
How much stuff has happened was what Shanahan updated the board on Tuesday. As for the future of suspensions, it won't be much different right away.
"There has to be the due process and it has to evolve and stuff," Chiarelli said. "You can't just say, 'All right, let's change the template.' You can't say that. It's not fair to the process, it's not fair to all the parties. You guys talk about trends and opinions on certain trends, and we do the same thing. In due course that will manifest itself."
In addition to talk about player safety, deputy commissioner Bill Daly provided the board with a logistical update on the Sochi Olympics and a joint evaluation of substance-abuse policy between the league and the NHLPA. The deaths of Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard in the summer of 2012 prompted a look at how players' mental health is handled.
"We commissioned jointly with the Players' Association and co-operated with them on an independent review of our program and I reported on the results of that review today," Daly said. "The bottom line is the report was good, that the program is doing what it is intended to do, it is helping players and former players in times of need."
Daly updated the governors on what to expect from the Olympics and during the NHL's break, along with some logistical elements. Bettman said the governors were briefed on the league's discussions with the NHLPA about reviving the World Cup of Hockey but predictably did not have any new information to share.
"I think it's no secret that we collectively believe having a world cup on a regular basis makes sense, the specifics we're not there yet on," Bettman said.
Bettman reiterated the NHL has no formal plans to expand beyond 30 teams, though he did spend a good portion of his time with reporters fielding questions about expansion. He did not rule it out in the near future.
"We're getting lots of expressions of interest and no decisions have been made to do anything other than listen," he said. "We haven't embarked on a formal expansion process, but when people want to talk to us we listen."