NHL commissioner Bettman gets what groundbreaking NFL commish Pete Rozelle did and current leader Roger Goodell does not. “It” is about connecting. Not separating.
One example is the the wonderful HBO series “24/7,” which is slowly but surely accomplishing for the NHL what NFL Films did for the NFL. Bringing the game to the people.
Far outweighing that example, however, is the transparency with which the NHL is handling an issue that threatens the very core of both leagues: head injuries.
Sports fans in Pittsburgh are familiar with the issue, for which Steelers linebacker James Harrison has become the poster boy. While I'm not one to put any stock in the absurd “NFL Hates the Steelers” conspiracy, it's abundantly clear that the NFL is handing the issue horrendously. There is no consistency, there is no one explaining anything—to the players or the fans—and there seems to be a total lack of understanding throughout the league as to what the rules are, let alone how they are enforced.
The NFL Players Association deserves some of the blame for this after they loudly complained about the league's suspension-policy last season, yet signed off on the exact same policy during last year's collective bargaining negotiations. Basically, the players gave the thumbs-up to letting Roger Goodell do whatever he wants without any explanation. Some have said that Goodell runs his NFL the way Vladimir Lenin ran his Russia, but that guy at least had everyone on the same page. Seems to me Goodell runs it more like Vladimir Putin – not very well. And, of course, we all know what James Harrison thinks of Goodell.
But at the other end of the spectrum is the NHL and their vice president for player safety, former All-Star Brendan Shanahan. Every time the league rules on a suspension, Shanahan explains the entire decision-making process in a well thought-out, clearly-illustrated, informative and publicly-distributed video.
While I've seen the videos in the past, the first time I truly examined one was during last month's incident involving Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland, who was suspended for three games for his hit on Chicago forward Marcus Krüger. I disagreed with the length of the suspension. Still do. I think one game would have been a significant punishment and a sufficient deterrent. But the league's willingness to put Shanahan front and center—with a rational, logical, and transparent explanation—increased my willingness to accept it.
The NHL is reaching out to the players and to their fans, explaining why this heavy-handed enforcement is necessary and how it can be avoided. Will there be disagreements along the way? Of course. And at times, the league will likely be wrong and someone will get treated unfairly.
But players—and fans—will respect the process more. And that's the first step in changing things for the better.