Brendan Shanahan isn’t here to be anyone’s friend. The intimidating 6-foot-3 hockey hall-of-famer is a man of both brute force and finesse (he’s the only guy to have more than 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes). Sitting in his Manhattan office, a man cave of televisions and laptops broadcasting every second of every single National Hockey League game, Shanahan is the sheriff of league discipline. And he’s here to fight the war on concussions. “Every brain is equal,” he tells Newsweek. “We go after people who target the head.”
This season, in a league where the discussion of head injuries has always been taboo, there’s no avoiding the issue. Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, plagued with concussion symptoms since 2011, is finally healthy. But the NHL faces a wrongful-death lawsuit from the family of Derek Boogaard, a New York Rangers enforcer who overdosed while recovering from a concussion. (The family’s lawyer declined to comment for this story.) And the National Football League’s decision to fork over $765 million in a concussion settlement with former players has caused people to wonder about the hockey league’s response. (When asked, Shanahan, the senior vice president of player safety, deflects by saying the NHL has been a pioneer in concussion safety for nearly 20 years.)
Shanahan, 44, knows he can’t stop concussions, especially in a sport where guys on skates regularly collide at speeds of 20 mph. But for the first time, visors are mandatory for new players. And observers say that Shanahan has been both quick and transparent in adjudicating disputes. Still, Shanahan has also taken some flak. As he enters his third season in the Department of Player Safety, the three-time Stanley Cup champion has been criticized for his initial big-stick diplomacy (an early spike in disciplinary action) and recent lack of consistency (an elbow to the head isn’t always a suspension).
In fairness, Shanahan doesn’t create the rules. Instead, he interprets the law of the NHL and Players’ Association rulebook. For every punishment doled out, the league website posts a short clip that breaks down the incident, replete with Shanahan’s voiceover. To prevent undue influence or attempts at cajoling, teams are forbidden from contacting him for 48 hours after a ruling. If he wants to talk, he makes the phone call.
Conversations about concussions usually revolve around Rule 48, introduced in 2010, which prohibits players from deliberately targeting someone’s head. But a study published earlier this year found that the rule doesn’t actually reduce concussions. Illegal hits account for only 30 percent of concussions. Most of the rest are results of so-called bodychecking, which is the allowed way of hitting another player who has the puck.
“The enforcement isn’t there,” says Michael D. Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, who conducted the study. “And the harshness of the penalty for breaking the rule, that just has no teeth behind it.” He says that perhaps the punishment should equal the games a player missed because of an injury. In Crosby’s case, that’s a 108-game suspension.
Concussion expert Kevin Guskiewicz—who’s had three concussions himself—is on the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee. By changing the rules on kickoffs, the league increased the likelihood of touchbacks and shortened the distance players have to run—and concussions shrank by 40 percent. “We’ve reduced the physics of the collisions when they do occur,” he tells Newsweek, adding that the NHL needs to identify scenarios that carry a high risk of concussions. In a frenetic sport like hockey, isolating individual moments isn’t easy.
Chris Kunitz, who’s played alongside Crosby on the Penguins for a year and a half, says that it’s a player’s responsibility to respect opponents while playing hard. “That’s part of the game that maybe lacked for a few years there. Not necessarily going out to try and hurt somebody, but making sure you’re not getting a guy in a bad spot.” Kunitz’s teammate Evgeni Malkin, a former MVP, also suffered a concussion last year.
Crosby’s story is a cautionary tale. The MVP, Olympic gold medalist, and Stanley Cup champion was hit in the head in consecutive games in 2011. For the next 14 months, he was plagued by symptoms such as difficulty reading or watching television. In an interview with CBC News this month, the 26-year-old Crosby said that while hockey is a traditional sport, there’s nothing wrong with tweaking the rules. “It doesn’t mean we’re forgetting what the game’s about,” he said.
Shanahan agrees that hockey needs to evolve. “It’s not a quick thing to change a culture,” he says. He’s ready to fight. “Sometimes you have to have a thick skin and stay the course.”