New National Hockey League disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan told the CBC that the NHL may have to examine whether fighting has a place in the game.
Shanahan made the comments Thursday in an interview conducted for the next episode of Mansbridge One on One.
Sending an early message
Here's a list of the seven players (as of Sept. 28) told to sit out games for preseason infractions, with links to their suspension details:
"We're definitely very serious in making advancements in studying blows to the head, we have to also look at fighting," said Shanahan.
"What the final decision is, I can't tell you now, that's something we're obviously going to have to look at, but there's no way we would ever deny that it's not something we're looking at closely," he added.
Shanahan, whose official title is senior vice-president of player safety, received his new mandate in June. He replaced Colin Campbell, who served in the capacity for 13 years and remains with the NHL as a director of hockey operations.
The Mimico, Ont., native was a 20-year NHL veteran who racked up 656 goals and 2,489 penalty minutes. He was also suspended five times.
In addition to knowing the rigours of playing in the NHL, Shanahan was among a number of players-turned-executives on an NHL panel looking into concussions.
The league sought to strengthen its rules in the spring in the wake of concussions suffered by several players, most notably the league's former most valuable player Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh.
Rule 48, in itself a recent development, was amended to discourage all hits targeting the head. Previously, it dealt with hits from behind or lateral hits.
As well, rules have been stiffened to help prevent defenceless players from being pushed into the boards.
There were no changes made with respect to fighting, however. The NHL is the only one of the four major North American team sports leagues to allow fighting.
Despite the promise to be more strict with penalties on hits to the head, Shanahan has surprised many hockey observers by handing out seven suspensions during the NHL's preseason slate as of Sept. 28. Columbus defenceman James Wisniewski received the harshest sentence, a suspension that extends eight games into the regular season.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who meted out discipline in the early 1990s while working for the NHL, told Hockey Night in Canada on Sept. 24 that a period of adjustment was to be expected.
"We support and voted for the crackdown on headshots," Burke said. "The tightrope is to take out the silly stuff but keep the physicality of the game intact. And that's what we're wrestling with [and] that's what the referees are going to be wrestling with. We don’t expect them to get it all right in the pre-season, it's a new rule [and] we're all going to have to work through it."
An unnamed NHL executive, while speaking to Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox, was less sanguine.
"We voted for stiffer suspensions, and we meant it, but not doubling and tripling," the Star reported. "If [Shanahan] gets too far in front, he won't last long in the job."
Indeed, it won't be up to Shanahan alone to determine whether fighting has a place in the game.
League officials have talked in the past about examining the role of fighting, but there's been divided opinion among the board of governors.
"I do not think it is the be-all and end-all of our game, but it is a part of the game," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in Montreal in 2009.
Bettman was speaking in the wake of an amateur player's death resulting from a fight, but there were no significant changes made at the NHL level.
The role of hockey's enforcers has come into focus in the last several months on a number of fronts.
According to researchers at Boston University who study the brains of deceased athletes involved in contact sports, NHLers Bob Probert and Reg Fleming showed signs of the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Though they were separated by about two decades, both Probert and Fleming were known for being among the toughest of their respective eras.
The NHL was rocked this summer by the deaths of Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, all who played in the 2010-11 season. While each death involved unique circumstances, all three players found a role in the league in large part because of their willingness to fight.
Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr issued a joint statement after Belak's death to examine those recent tragedies.
"We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place," the statement read.
Peter Mansbridge's interview with Brendan Shanahan for Mansbridge One on One will be broadcast Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network, and on CBC-TV on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET.