How one forward's power play rewrote hockey's rules
DETROIT — In the National Hockey League, players often shoot a dirty look at a referee after drawing a penalty.
These days, opponents and even his Detroit Red Wings teammates occasionally glance with the same disdain at veteran winger Brendan Shanahan.
"I can handle it," Shanahan said after practice at the team's Joe Louis Arena the other day. "I expected it ... that a few players might make it personal with me."
Shanahan was referring to the NHL's new rulebook. It was, after all, his instigation that led to the league reevaluating a game that even professional players described as "chess matches" - low-scoring affairs in which the most talented players were mugged on their way to the net.
After the NHL cancelled last season because of a labor dispute, league executives radically rewrote the game's rulebook. Gone are the goaltenders' Michelin Man-like pads. Passes across two lines, previously whistled as offside, are opening the game up. League officials have limited goaltenders' ability to handle the puck, moved the blueline to create space in the offensive zone, and, most controversially, instructed referees to strictly enforce rules penalizing players for hooking and certain types of holding.
Though the new version of the game has increased scoring and brought fans back to the arenas, several stars have expressed displeasure with the new rules. And with Shanahan.
Sports leagues have been known to rewrite rules because of individual athletes. Wilt Chamberlain's dominance prompted the National Basketball Association to widen the key. Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher's mound after Bob Gibson posted an earned-run average of 1.12, a number right out of the deadball era. But the NHL's makeover had nothing to do with Brendan Shanahan's performance.
Rather, it traces back to an initiative he organized in the fall of 2004. While the NHL and its players association were staring each other down in collective bargaining sessions, Shanahan extended invitations for a two-day summit meeting on hockey's future.
At the time, few envisioned that it would have much of an effect on the game. Many accused the winger of grandstanding. "Some people told me that, with the lock-out, this was the wrong time to do something like this," Shanahan says. "I thought it was absolutely the right time - even the only time - to do it."
Shanahan was shocked by the turnout.
"I thought maybe the league would tell its people to stay away," he says. "But [Philadelphia Flyers] owner Ed Snider came in and Bob Gainey [general manager of the Montreal Canadiens] commanded everybody's respect because he's a Hall of Famer as a player. He just gave the whole thing a sort of seriousness and authority."
Shanahan and his 26 guests didn't rewrite the rule book per se when they met in Toronto in December 2004. They did, however, get the league offices talking about restoring skill and offense to the game. By last spring, NHL general managers gathered in Toronto for a series of games featuring minor leaguers and collegians to try out the proposed rule changes.
Even though the Globe and Mail in Toronto dubbed Shanahan "the most powerful person in Canadian sport" for being "responsible more than anyone else for the new National Hockey League," the Red Wing isn't taking any bows.
"No one can accuse me of self-interest in all this," says Shanahan, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, Olympic gold medallist, and a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. "You could make a case that a lot of the new rules don't help my game out at all."
True enough. The new NHL places a premium on speed, and Shanahan, at 6-ft., 3-in., 220 lbs., might be the slowest skater in the Red Wings' contingent of forwards. But while many expected Detroit to fall back into the pack because of the league's new rules and the salary cap that came out of collective bargaining, the team continues to rank among the NHL elite.
That hasn't stopped criticism of the NHL's makeover in the Red Wings' dressing room. Team captain Steve Yzerman has been a particularly vocal critic. "It's not great,'' he told the Detroit Free Press. "The referees have to use some judgment on what is a penalty and what is not.... I think it's somewhat made it easy on the referees just to call anything, because there is no judgment."
Shanahan simply asks for patience.
"Everyone's adjusting," he says. "It's going to take seasons. It'll get down to the grass roots. Eventually it will be the only game young players ever played, and the game will be better for it."