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Insider

Impact of the NFL's concussion settlement

9/5/2013

The trio of Brendan Shanahan, Brian Leetch and Patrick Burke were in New York on Wednesday, their first real day together as part of the revamped NHL player safety department. Leetch replaces Rob Blake, who left for a front-office job in Los Angeles. Burke was hired after finishing law school while scouting for the Flyers, and Shanahan said Burke's focus will be administrative -- working out schedules, watching games and offering up opinions on borderline plays that he thinks are worthy of a hearing.

"It's two fresh minds," Shanahan said when we chatted on Wednesday by phone.

And two opinionated minds.

Leetch was brought in not just because of his outstanding NHL playing career, but because he understands the intricacies of the game. He understands what was a necessary movement on the ice and what wasn't. What was necessary contact and what wasn't.

"He's lived it," Shanahan said. "Brian is just at another level."

If Shanahan has done his job well in selecting the team, it won't take long for the internal arguments to heat up between the three. In preparing for the season over the next few weeks, Shanahan will focus on catching them up to the league's standards and examining decisions made over the last couple of campaigns. His goal is to have them look at decisions on suspensions and non-suspensions the group made over the last few years and bring their own perspective and questions.

Considering the public response to each of Shanahan's rulings, along with the personalities Shanahan is bringing in, that shouldn't be hard.

"We didn't exactly hire two yes-men. We don't want yes-men," Shanahan said. "That's not either of their reputation. They're both strong-willed guys. Opinionated guys."

In the past, there have been civil arguments within the department of player safety, regarding whether a hit was suspension-worthy and just how long a player should sit. Shanahan's response to the dissenting voice is always the same: Provide the background. Offer precedence. Prove your point, and he'll prove his.

"In a room full of people saying yes and someone says no, we're very interested in that guy," Shanahan said.

It's now Shanahan's third season as the league's disciplinarian and he's learned to watch games in a different way. He sees potentially ugly plays develop before they happen and has seen progress in the number of players passing on taking advantage of a defenseless player. Instead of crushing a guy with a dangerous hit, he notices guys opting for a poke check or hitting just hard enough to separate a player from the puck, without crossing the line into something more dangerous.

Those subtle plays are the ones that are celebrated within the walls of Shanahan's office, and he's hoping, even in this coming season, to see young players entering the league already playing that way. The hardest adjustment is getting the current group to change the way they play. Real progress is made when the evolution to a safer style is all a player ever knows. That takes time, but the league's efforts surrounding concussion prevention have helped that evolution.

On Wednesday, as Shanahan was assembling his team in New York, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell publicly defended the $765 million settlement that compensates retired football players for concussion-related brain injuries. Cutting the number of concussions in the NHL has been one of Shanahan's primary goals since taking over, and the game has seen a reduction of vicious blindside hits, like the one that ended Marc Savard's career.

Shanahan points out that the league's focus on concussion prevention predates his joining the league offices.

"I can remember back as a player as early as 1997 doing baseline testing, and nobody was doing that then," he said. "They were starting to make players aware of concussion protocol and safety; they obviously saw ahead of it then."

That may be part of the reason there hasn't been a similar class-action suit filed against the NHL, at least not yet. Guaranteed contracts help the cause, too.

Stu Grimson racked up 2,113 penalty minutes in a 729-game NHL career that ended because he couldn't fight off the symptoms from the last blow to the head he received. He estimates that he suffered dozens of concussions as an NHL enforcer. He's also a lawyer, so if somebody was going to be contacted about a class-action lawsuit, it would be him. In his opinion, if one was coming he would have heard of it by now.

"This lawsuit levied at the NFL, we've been aware of this for some time," Grimson said on Wednesday. "I think our sport is one that has taken reasonable and in some cases aggressive measures to cut back on head trauma in the diagnosis, the treatments, the circumstances in which these injuries occur. I can't see where they've been negligent."

Still, future lawsuits remain a possibility. In May, the family of Derek Boogaard filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the NHL. The family contends that the NHL is responsible for the physical trauma suffered by Boogaard, along with his addiction to painkillers. Boogaard died in 2011 of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol.

Boogaard was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by repeated blows to the head and that's one area where sports legal analyst Eric Macramalla thinks the league might be vulnerable. The NHL still allows multiple blows to the head every time two players drop the gloves.

If someone from the league had to stand in front of a jury and say they did all they could within the confines of the game to prevent head injuries, they might be able to do a convincing job. Except for one element of the sport.

"Fighting is a part of the fabric of the game. But it does carry with it some legal risk," said Macramalla, a partner at Gowlings, a Canadian law firm.

Considering that the league is run by executives with a background in law, Macramalla said he wouldn't be surprised to see fighting out of the game in ten years.

"The legal case against fighting is the biggest catalyst," he said.

Shanahan didn't disagree with the assessment.

"I don't focus on making my decisions with litigation in the back of my mind ... there are some hits that were acceptable in hockey five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago that are no longer acceptable to the current generation of players," Shanahan said.

"Eventually the role of the position of the dedicated fighter probably will go the same direction. That's not an attack on players who have made this their primary role on their team ... if you talk to most guys employed in the '70s, '80s, '90s, 2000s and today, they would agree that that role is not what it used to be. It has to do with the evolution of the game and the safety of the game."

Safety, not avoiding litigation, remains Shanahan's focus. It's his third year in the position, and he's developed a good handle on how to deal with the inevitable backlash that comes with every decision. With two teams involved, most decisions are going to anger one of them, along with their vocal fan base. And then there are the two different camps when it comes to physicality in hockey -- the group that thinks Shanahan and the current NHL regime are taking the hitting out of hockey, and the group that thinks he isn't tough enough on hits to the head.

He's often told just how tough his job is, and brushes that off. His father is a fireman, he points out. That's tough.

He doesn't have a timetable for how long he'll keep this job, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him in a front office one day running a team. When asked whether he enjoyed his current position, it wasn't precisely the word he used.

"Um," he said with a pause. "I would say that I'm passionate about it. I really believe in being a part of the evolution of hockey. Having a respect for the history and the tradition of hockey and being a part of the evolution of the game in this century. I'm grateful I'm a part of that."