Friday, September 23, 2011

On Shanny and Legitimacy

by NiNY

Legitimacy, like respect, must be earned.

I mean, duh.

Legitimacy is granted, not taken.

The NHL has suffered from a legitimacy deficiency for years. That deficiency exists in the eyes of the American football, baseball and basketball-loving sports communities. It exists in the eyes of the major media outlets. It exists even to an extent in hockey's own fans, who tolerate a year-long lockout and then return to the game grateful that they deigned to start playing again.

One of the areas in which the NHL really hurt its own cause in its heretofore Sysophusian task of garnering legitimacy was in the area of supplemental discipline.

Hockey, as a sport, tip-toes the very thin line between legal and illegal play as defined by the rules of the game or by society itself. In some ways, it blurs that line. You can legally conduct yourself in a boorish manner (bodychecking, for example), and you can illegally conduct yourself in a much less-violent manner (holding, for example).

And, to an American non-hockey fan, learning to appreciate the nuances that differentiate holding in, say, the NFL versus holding in the NHL might not be the easiest thing to do. Some of that has to do with the average intelligence of American NFL fans, but hockey fans would be kidding themselves if they tried to say theirs is an easy game to jump right in and grasp.

So when the sport does something that alienates any part of its fan base, but especially a part that represents new fans, it's not good. I suppose you could say that about any sport, but MLB, NFL and, to an extent, the NBA are more entrenched than the NHL in America, and as such they are afforded more grace. They also have larger fan bases so they can better absorb potentially losing some newer fans.

Baseball and football are also more a part of the American culture than hockey. How many people do you know who claim they're not really sports fans, yet they know what the World Series and the Super Bowl are, go to the parties, watch the commercials, whatever, and also cheer at (most of) the right times? "Oh, I'm not really a baseball fan. I just have this Yankees hat that I wear the one time I go to a baseball game each year." "Do you have a Rangers hat?" "Who?" "Exactly."

My point is that, with those sports, you just acclimate to a certain level of acceptance of them. If you're not a sports fan, but you're from New York, you probably have it in your mind that you're a Giants fan but not a Jets fan (or vice versa) because that's who your dad liked or whatever. I'm saying baseball and football stand a much better chance of just catching fans in their nets than hockey. You have to become a hockey fan. It's just not as widely accepted as a part of our culture here in America.

Back to the topic of supplemental discipline. The NFL is frankly ridiculous with how it metes out supplemental discipline. A fine for a touchdown celebration just seems overly restrictive and Grinchy. But the NFL can get away with it because it's so incredibly popular and well marketed. The NHL does not enjoy the benefit of those luxuries.

And the former head of supplemental discipline, Colin Campbell, didn't help things.

To be fair, that's got to be a shitty job. You can never make all parties happy. Either you suspend too harshly, in which case the team of the offending player gets upset, or you suspend too lightly in which case the team of the aggrieved player gets upset.

But Campbell failed at the most basic level: he failed because he was opaque and inconsistent. Intentional or not, his rulings gave the impression of being totally isolated to each specific incident, with no precedent taken from prior rulings for similar actions, if not from the same player. His unwillingness to offer any rationale for his decisions only served to perpetuate and grow that impression of inconsistency. It was "Here's the rule he broke, here's the suspension. Peace, out." And it was in a press release.

I, like many hockey fans I assume, personally had to answer for these decisions when non-hockey fans questioned them. It's a vicious cycle for hockey. It only gets on ESPN when it stubs its toe. And so then people have Bertuzzi or Downie in their mind. Then, they ask their buddy the hockey fan about it, and we had to say "Yeah he only got a couple games suspension." Their reaction was typically "That's it? Your sport is messed up, man." Then they dumped hockey back into their mental junk drawer until ESPN showed some Flyer crushing some guy the next time...

Obviously Campbell's apparent insouciance drove us hockey fans nuts. The whole "Colie's Wheel O'Justice" thing is surprisingly widely used according to my Twitter feed. I don't believe Campbell was actually trying to mess things up. Like I said, tough job, that. But the result was still unacceptable.

Because it also hurt the league from a general acceptance perspective. Especially here in the States. And if you don't think gaining acceptance in America is important to the NHL then ask yourself why, between when San Jose started in '91-92 and this year, thirteen franchises were started or moved, and only two of them (Ottawa and Winnipeg) were to Canadian cities. In fact, Canada lost a franchise during that time when Quebec moved to Denver. (We'll count Winnipeg as a wash as they moved and now returned.)

Like it or not, the NHL looks at America as the fertile grounds of its manifest destiny.

So this kind of confusion, this level of casual arrogance in the way Campbell handed down supplementary discipline was hurting the cause.

Exit Colie. Enter Shanny.

Shanny had spent his first months on the job looking at new stanchions and shallower nets and such. But, once the (preseason) games started, everyone knew his major tests were about to start: supplemental discipline.

Sure enough, we've had two in two days now. Calgary's Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond Jacob-Jingleheimerschmidt and (who else?) Philadelphia's Jody Shelley provided Shanny the stage.

And he's knocked it out of the park. The actual suspensions are one thing. But the way they're being presented is everything. Shanny has released videos of him taking responsibility for the suspensions, showing video of the hits, quoting the rule(s) in question and explaining his rationale for his actions.

This isn't just a departure from the Campbell regime, this is like going from a state of cryogenic freeze to parachuting out of an airplane in one second.

Suddenly everything that made Campbell inapproachable and aloof has been reversed: there's clarity. There's explanation. There's one specific person taking ownership of the situation. There's video with specific examples.

Yeah, there's some post-production stuff on the videos themselves that's a little cheesy. But the meat of these things - the transparency of it all if nothing else - is such a breath of fresh air that it's almost stunning.

Now, when your meathead football fan sees a dirty hit on ESPN and asks you about it, you can say "Come on over to my house where we have electricity and I'll show you what the league did to this guy on this whiz bang computer device I have." It's so easy, a football fan can do it.

This doesn't automatically mean hockey will be embraced by America. But it takes away one way in which the NHL alienated Americans who maybe just didn't want to put forth all the effort required to become a fan.


Nate W. said...

I see this being more of a problem for the existing fans, but at the very least the NHL is taking steps to fix a legitimate issue.

Dampland said...

Good article, and I too love what Shanny is doing. I think his videos/explanations will only help hockey in the long run.