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Safety room is where the action is

3/1/2013 - NHL
Pierre LeBrun/ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Brendan Shanahan sits back in his office chair and takes very little time to answer the question.

Nearly midway through his second season as NHL chief disciplinarian, what has he learned the most?

"I don't think this is a job that can be done perfectly. It's only a job that you can aspire to do well," the NHL's senior vice president of player safety said Thursday in an interview with ESPN.com.

Indeed, this job will never earn perfect marks. Not when you're dealing in the gray.

But there is, Shanahan hopes people will realize, an attempt at developing a methodology that explains where he's coming from when doling out justice, or when he's not.

The real lessons are not just learned in the actual suspensions, but rather in the knowledge gained from the 800-plus incidents -- small or big -- his player safety group reviewed last season.

That's right, 800-plus plays were reviewed last season. Many people are aware that only 56 of those plays resulted in suspensions. But where the comfort zone is developed is in the total volume of plays that are reviewed, whether there's a suspension or not.

"People will often say, 'I disagree with this one or I disagree with that one.' It's a perfectly rational perspective to have in most cases," said Shanahan. "But the reality is there's one group of guys that are acting as the judge, and it's my group. At the end of the day, it's not fair to jump in and weigh in on one out of each 10 suspensions. It's not even fair to jump in and weigh in on every suspension. In order to do this job thoroughly, you have to jump in and weigh in on every review. And that's all 800-plus clips.

"If you think this is just about seeing the suspendable or the near-suspendable ones, then you're not gaining enough scale, at least I think. And look, you can hire five different guys to hold this position, and they may have five different standards. But this one is ours."

Shanahan's trusted lieutenants in the department of player safety consist of former NHL players Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal as well as video mastermind Damian Echevarrieta, the vice president of player safety.

The coordinators (game-watchers) are Michael Grover, Chris Nastro and Evan Rand.

That's the nucleus of supplemental discipline, Shanahan's group.

Inside the Player Safety Room

For years, the NHL's hockey operations department in Toronto has had its war room, an impressive TV- and computer-laden outfit where Colin Campbell, Mike Murphy, Kris King, Kay Whitmore and the rest of the gang monitored games and administered goal reviews. Before last season, with Campbell as NHL disciplinarian, every possible incident was also monitored and acted upon from that room.

That changed last season after Shanahan took over from Campbell as chief disciplinarian. A new room was set up in New York City under the guidance of Shanahan and Echevarrieta, with the specific mandate to flag incidents that could result in supplemental discipline. Toronto still does goal reviews; New York now does discipline.

Situated on the 12th floor of the NHL's head office in Manhattan, the player safety room is adorned with several TV and computer screens that stream live games, Shanahan's group is armed with top-notch technology to gather replays and produce video clips on the fly.

In the player safety room Wednesday night, ESPN.com was invited to spend the evening, an eye-opening experience that reinforces the notion that the NHL is indeed watching every single possible infraction.

You might disagree with which plays end up in suspensions, but you cannot -- believe me -- doubt that the player safety group isn't watching like a hawk.

On this night, there are just two early games, Montreal-Toronto and Washington-Philadelphia, but Shanahan is barely into his seat when a play catches his eye.

"What just happened there? Play that back, please," Shanahan says to Echevarrieta, barely one minute into the Habs-Leafs game when Toronto tough guy Colton Orr knocks down Montreal winger Colby Armstrong.

"That's probably nothing. Armstrong was off balance and ran into Orr," Shanahan says.

But the play is nevertheless clipped.

When a play is "clipped" by NHL Player Safety, that means it is officially a play under review. Plenty of other plays don't reach the official clip level but nevertheless are watched as well.

A moment later, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf hammers Canadiens forward Brandon Prust with a check that's near the head.

"Hmm, yeah, clip it, please," says Shanahan.

About 20 minutes after the Orr hit on Armstrong, an email has been sent out by coordinator Chris Nastro addressed to Shanahan's player safety feedback group, which includes not only his player safety group but also some trusted voices from the hockey operations guys in Toronto.

The email contains all the pertinent details about the play, the replay and Orr's suspension history.

Shanahan is the first to respond to the group email: "Thoughts?" And from there, everyone chips in with a view on the play.

Those on the email reply to only Shanahan, so as not to influence opinion. And Shanahan does not tell anyone his initial impression until getting everyone's feedback.

"Pause the Toronto game. Let me see that [Joel] Ward hit in Philadelphia. Whoof. OK," says Shanahan.

False alarm. Clean hit as Flyers blue-liner Nicklas Grossmann takes the worse for wear on his own initiated hit on Ward.

A few minutes later, Toronto's Mike Brown pushes Montreal's Josh Gorges from behind into the boards. It earns Brown a five-minute major for checking from behind and a game misconduct.

"Let me see that," says Shanahan. "Hmm. Let me see it again."

Replays go back and forth from every angle available.

"OK, I think he's trying to get the side of him. Let's clip it, though," Shanahan says.

The major to Brown made me think of asking whether penalties handed out in-game ever change the thought process on supplemental discipline.

"It really doesn't," Echevarrieta says. "Regardless of what the call is on the ice, we look at every play on its own merit, no matter if there was a penalty called on the ice or not."

It's intermission in both games. Shanahan spends time breaking down the Phaneuf hit on Prust. There's something bothering him about it.

Shanahan is surrounded by technology, with a laptop, iPad and Blackberry constantly in use.

On nights when he's not in the office, the clips for review are sent to his iPad, which he constantly carries with him so he can watch replays at all times.

Shanahan pauses the Caps-Flyers game. He wants to show me something.

"Watch there, [James] Van Riemsdyk lets up on [Ryan] White," he says of a play where JVR skates up to White from behind in the corner. "Nobody notices that play because it's a nothing play, but that's an example we see every night now of players understanding what's right or not."

Translation: Player behavior on the ice has changed since Shanahan took over. Or at least that's the hope in the player safety group.

It's the middle of the second period in the Montreal-Toronto game, and Shanahan has enough feedback back from his group via email on the Orr-Armstrong play.

"The consensus, and I agree, is that there isn't anything there," Shanahan says.

The clip is stored and catalogued in the department's ever-growing library of reviewed plays and will always be available to access again if need be to use as an example or as a comparison to a future hit.

Toronto's Frazer McLaren hammers Gorges into the boards. The Habs blue-liner got caught admiring his pass.

"Good hit," says Shanahan. "There's a bit of head contact, but it's not the principal point of contact and there's no targeting."

The player safety group has to make up its mind on this night on anything Toronto- or Detroit-related because both teams play the next night. If there's going to be a hearing, it will let the team know before the end of the night.

At 9:10 p.m. ET, Blake responds via email to Shanahan on the Phaneuf-Prust hit, agreeing with Shanahan that there's head contact but in the end feeling the hit doesn't fit the criteria and does not warrant supplemental discipline.

The game is nearly over in Philadelphia when a crunching hit produced a reviewable clip, with Harry Zolnierczyk of the Flyers hammering Mathieu Perreault of the Caps in open ice in a hit that seems to injure Perrault's knee.
Twitter is quickly ablaze with comparisons to the Taylor Hall hit from the week before on Cal Clutterbuck, which netted the Oilers star a two-game suspension.

"Totally different," says Shanahan, shaking his head. "The Flyers player in this case isn't leading with his knee. And the puck is still there in this case. The two hits aren't similar at all."

It's still clipped, but Shanahan has no hesitation in his view that there are no grounds for suspension. The feedback group would later back that opinion.

Two late games, Nashville-Anaheim and Detroit-L.A., are next up. Only the Wings-Kings produce clips, one involving Justin Abdelkader and another with Jake Muzzin.

In the end, on a light night in the NHL with only four games, the player safety group still produces and reviews six clips and debates them internally.

The Day After

In Shanahan's office Thursday, ESPN.com follows up on the previous night's activities.

"No supplemental discipline resulting from last night," said Shanahan.

The play that had media and fans talking the most was the Zolnierczyk-Perreault hit near the end of the Caps-Flyers game, but not only did Shanahan never think there was anything wrong with the hit, but the NHL would rescind the five-minute major penalty and game misconduct (confirmed by director of officiating Terry Gregson via email Thursday).

No, despite Brown's five-minute major in Toronto and the one in Philadelphia that was rescinded, neither ranked as the most noteworthy incident of Wednesday night.

"I would say last night, probably the one that piqued my interest the most was the Phaneuf hit on Prust," said Shanahan. "We were all pretty much in agreement that this was not a suspension, but I would say that it was one I needed to break down frame by frame and make sure. There was significant contact to the head but no targeting. It was a play that was a few inches and a few milliseconds away from being a bad one."

Sometimes in this situation, Shanahan will phone a player that was close to getting suspended and let him know his hit was borderline. He did that Wednesday with Minnesota Wild rookie Charlie Coyle, who received a five-minute major for elbowing Calgary forward Matt Stajan close to the head Tuesday night.

"It's not so much a warning when I make those calls but rather just want to walk the player through it and make him understand why the play was close to a suspension," said Shanahan.

In the Phaneuf case, he doesn't reach out because the Leafs captain has a game Thursday night on Long Island.

"If I'm not doing any supplemental discipline, I don't like to bother guys on game days," said Shanahan.

The message from Shanahan, regardless of whether it's an official hearing or in one of those phone calls where there's no suspension, is that players can still play a robust brand of hockey but must understand the guidelines.

"I want players to be able to play on their toes, and not on their heels," said Shanahan. "I want physical players to feel confident that they know what they can and shouldn't do. On Coyle, it's one of those cases where I feel he was real close to being suspended for that hit."

Shanahan is more at ease in his role now. He's learned the ins and outs of a difficult job and, he says, continues to learn.

His mantra last season was that he wasn't in the player punishment business but rather into changing player behavior. He sits up in his chair Thursday and modifies that mantra.

"I learned last year that for the majority of our work it's for changing player behavior and making the game safer, but I would say that, without naming names, there's a couple of occasions with repeat offenders where there was more of an element of, 'You've been told too many times. Yeah, we want to get your attention and change your behavior, but you hurt someone and you deserve some form of punishment,'" said Shanahan, all but screaming out the name of Raffi Torres.

Perhaps most telling of Shanahan in Year 2 of his discipline campaign is that he's less noticeable in the public eye. He became an overnight star last season with his videos about the discipline taken, unheard of for its transparency. But for some old-school types around the league, it was a little too much to see Shanahan so front and center in those videos.

This season, he no longer appears on the videos; only his voice is heard describing the reason for the suspension. Supplemental discipline is tweeted out not by Shanahan's personal account anymore but rather by the Twitter account @NHLPlayerSafety.

It's about the group now, not him individually.

"I probably felt about halfway through last year that was the way the department should evolve," said Shanahan. "It's sort of hard to make those changes in the middle of the season."

There's noticeable pride in his voice when he talks about the player safety group's evolution.

"It's really about the department. I really hope that with the video library that we're creating of all the incidents, with the department itself, the video room, we all want to create something that if we left, somebody else could step in and the blueprint would be there for how to do this," he said. "I really do believe that anybody can have a different opinion on certain hits, and that's fine, and would have a different standard that they would hold. This one is ours, this is the one we employ. And I think if somebody really truly came in and studied everything we did, they would see a predictability in this. If people call us predictable, we take that as a great compliment."

As of Thursday, there had been six suspensions this season for 11 total games, plus four fines. In total, 11 hearings were held, including two instances where there was no supplemental discipline.

Proof that you can never appease anyone in this job: One NHL coach earlier this week complained to ESPN.com that he felt the supplemental discipline was too lenient this season. On the same day, an NHL GM told ESPN.com that Shanahan was coming down too hard again.

A new rule this season from the new collective bargaining agreement: a 48-hour window after incidents in which teams cannot call Shanahan to vent/lobby/complain. Nada, no communication, unless Shanahan reaches out to the team.

"It was brought up during the CBA negotiations when we talked about supplemental discipline," said Shanahan. "Brian Burke and Colin Campbell were also in those meetings, which means we had decades of experience of doing this job. We all sort of agreed and then several of our general managers agreed that there really shouldn't be any lobbying done one way or another and that the department can do the job with the most integrity without having the phone ringing three minutes after an incident occurred.

"You saw last night, nobody called the room; nobody was calling me. That wasn't necessarily the case in previous years. ... No good conversations really occur in those emotional moments."

A day after the Matt Cooke-Erik Karlsson incident, a play in which the Ottawa defenseman's season ended on a freak cutting from Cooke's skate, Shanahan reached out to Senators GM Bryan Murray to explain why there would be no supplemental discipline on Cooke.

"Bryan is a real gentleman. It was a good conversation," said Shanahan. "But it probably wouldn't have been a good conversation the night before. We probably would have said things we regretted in that moment."

The 48-hour rule makes sense, Shanahan continued.

"Most importantly, most GMs want this," he said. "They want to know that the other GM isn't on the phone with us lobbying to get your player suspended the next day. That's the genesis of it. The cooldown period is an additional benefit to it."

But, a year and a half into the job, Shanahan still has to fortify himself for those phone calls to teams and players who are in hot water.

"I had a lot of friends when I played, and I was a pretty happy guy," said the future Hall of Famer. "I didn't have too many difficult conversations in my playing career. And this has been a job. I mean, I'm never calling people with good news. Or calling people that are having the best day either. That's never pleasant. But it's been a real challenge and learning experience to handle a bad situation as best as you can. I would say I'm probably better at it this year than I was last year."

He pauses for a moment and then adds before getting up from his desk as the interview ends:

"Blakey, Stephane, Damian and I, we're still learning. But I hope people realize what we're trying to do here."