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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
It was time for Colin Campbell to move on

By Scott Burnside

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- When the hammer falls on NHL players who run afoul of the rules next season, there will be a new man wielding that hammer of discipline.

Goodbye, Colin Campbell ... hello, Brendan Shanahan. Hope the black hood fits.

Campbell will continue to hold down duties as a top league executive dealing with officiating and Central Scouting, but his most important and certainly most controversial job as dean of discipline now belongs to longtime NHL forward Shanahan.

Colin Campbell and Brendan Shanahan
Brendan Shanahan, right, takes over for Colin Campbell, who served as the NHL's dean of discipline for 13 years.

We have heard ad nauseum that it is a thankless job, but it is a job that desperately needed a new face, thankless or not.

Campbell, a loyal foot soldier to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, had done the job tirelessly for 13 years. He approached Bettman about devoting more time to other duties, like rule changes, and the commissioner took the opportunity to create a new department devoted specifically to player safety and supplemental discipline.

Along with handing out fines and suspensions, Shanahan and his staff within the newly created Department of Player Safety will look at introducing rules that will make the game safer.

"Both Colin and I believe that it is time to take a fresh look at the standards that we use, and if we're going to move to harsher discipline, that change needs to send a clear message, and we think it would probably be best to do it on a clean slate," Bettman told reporters in advance of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday.

When asked why Campbell had asked to be relieved of his disciplinary duties, Bettman said there was "no tipping point."

"The tipping point may have been 13 years ... of supplemental discipline. At some point, you deserve to have your sentence commuted," Bettman joked.

As much as Campbell needed a break from one of the least pleasant, most demanding jobs in all of sports, in truth, the sport needed a break from him.

By the end, Campbell's curious take on what constituted supplemental discipline and his persistent inability to articulate the league's vision on supplemental discipline had left the league open to ridicule from the media and a persistent sense of bewilderment on the part of players, coaches and GMs.

The fact that Campbell was allowed to continue to mete out discipline while his son, Gregory, played in the NHL remains a puzzler. Although he recused himself from ruling on infractions involving the Boston Bruins, for whom his son plays, the fact that there was even a hint of a lack of impartiality from one of the most visible and important positions in the game should never have been allowed to happen. Players openly wondered at how the Bruins were treated by league officials even if Campbell wasn't involved in decisions relating to them.

That Campbell was and remains highly regarded in the sport does not diminish the fact that he should have moved away from this role a long time ago. Bettman went to great lengths to insist the changes were not an indictment of how Campbell did his job, but the proof suggests otherwise.

"It would be unfair, inappropriate and simply wrong to suggest that this reorganization in any way is a diminution of Colin or his role," Bettman said. "The game is being played at the high level that it is because of the rule changes Colie put together and implemented. While many people contributed to the new game, it is Colin who put it together and made it work. I don't think anybody should lose sight of that."

Fair enough, but it is clear Bettman wasn't happy with the direction of the supplementary discipline and moved decisively to correct the problems.

The challenge for Shanahan will be to bring order to the Byzantine world of NHL discipline.

It will be up to Shanahan to communicate to GMs and players exactly what is going to be tolerated and what is not, especially as it relates to blows to the head and reckless plays that endanger other players.

One thing Bettman made clear is he is expecting that there will be harsher supplemental discipline under Shanahan, and that is a welcome message.

"That is my hope and expectation," Bettman said. "That is something that we want to discuss more fully with the players' association. But from my standpoint, Colie's standpoint, Brendan's standpoint, if there's certain conduct that we want to see out of the game, then we've got to make sure we do what's necessary."

Shanahan acknowledged this is the kind of job in which not every day is going to be an easy day, but he promised to try to be transparent in his thought process -- something that is key to re-establishing confidence in the office of discipline.

"I can't promise you how I'm going to view each individual situation," Shanahan said. "I think it's important to state I do love the physical aspect of hockey, and it's a very difficult and fine balance to keep that in the game -- to allow players to play on their toes, but at the same time for them to know what they can and can't do.

"But I can't promise you what was once a three[-game suspension] is now a seven," he said. "I will promise you that when I do make those decisions, I will try to make my thought process, and everything that went into that thought process, very clear and very visible to the entire hockey world."

In the end, handing out discipline might be a thankless job, but on this day, we are thankful someone else is going to be doing it.