Brendan Shanahan, Gary Bettman, and the rest of the NHL executives who hand out suspensions and fines in the name of player safety.
Sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, doesn’t it? The sad part is, its no joke at all.
A little less than two weeks ago, on a Saturday night in Boston, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins squared off in a battle of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. What transpired in the first period of this contest was nothing short of a disgusting display of a sport that I love, not to mention a criminal act.
Just ten seconds into the opening frame, Brooks Orpik delivered a bone-jarring hit to an unsuspecting Loui Eriksson of the Bruins. The hit was deemed clean, that the puck was at Eriksson’s feet when Orpik made contact.
A scrum ensued and the Penguins went to the power play. But its what happened later in the period that has raised the ire of hockey fans everywhere.
Shawn Thornton, in sticking up for his teammate, wanted Brooks Orpik to fight. Orpik declined the invitation and Thornton was issued a minor penalty for roughing.
The important thing to remember here is that Orpik has ZERO obligation to humor Thornton in this case. There was no penalty called on the hit to Eriksson, and therefore (and rightly so) Orpik felt he had nothing to answer for.
To a degree, fighting is the NHL players’ version of policing themselves. When a player is issued what is deemed by his teammates to be a cheap shot, those same teammates may seek retribution by going after the offending player, or one of the offending team’s top players. This is all well and good, until a player like Thornton crosses the line between retribution and revenge.
James Neal’s Cheap Shot to Brad Marchand
I firmly believe that had James Neal not lost his mind momentarily and drove his knee into a prone Brad Marchand – laying on the ice in front of the Bruins’ bemch – none of this would have happened. But do not get it it twisted here, ladies and gents. I am NOT blaming Neal for Thornton’s actions.
After Sidney Crosby had inadvertently tripped up Marchand (which should have been a penalty on the Penguins’ captain), James Neal skated by the felled Bruins winger and delivered a knee to the side of Marchand’s head. If you watch the replay, you’ll agree that there was in fact malicious intent on the part of Neal.
It was certainly not a hockey play. The puck was at the other end of the ice. and the play was moving away from Marchand. Furthermore, Neal made ZERO attempt to avoid Marchand, which he easily could have done.
The result: a 5-game suspension for Neal. This is where the joke that is the NHL Department of Player Safety begins.
To put this suspension in some perspective; Pens defenseman Deryk Engelland also received a 5-game suspension for simply lowering his center of gravity while going after a lose puck in Detroit last Saturday evening. In doing so, Engelland collided with Red Wings’ forward Justin Abdelkader, striking Abdelkader in the chin with his shoulder. This was the very definition of a hockey play. Unfortunately, a hockey play with a bad result.
Shawn Thornton’s Criminal Act
Make no mistake about this; what Shawn Thornton did to Brooks Orpik was brutal, and criminal. He should have been more worried about criminal charges being pressed against
him than any suspension and subsequent fine levied against him.
After the Neal knee to Marchand – in which Neal was assessed a 2-minute minor penalty for roughing (another joke) – there was a scrum inside the Penguins’ blue line. Thornton was on his way back to his bench, before he caught sight of Orpik on the edge if said scrum, and decided to turn around and go after him. In other words, Shawn Thornton had to cross center ice to get to Orpik.
So that eliminates any possibility of this being a spur-of-the-moment decision by Thornton.
Nor was it a hockey play. The whistle had blown due to the penalty being called on Neal.
After reaching Orpik in the scrum, Thornton proceeded to slew-foot the unaware Penguins’ player. Once Orpik was on the ice, Thornton then proceeded to deliver a gloved punch (which rendered Orpik unconscious) and a couple of forearm shivers. At this point, I have no more words to describe this terrible incident. Just watch:
The Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore Precedent
The NHL actually had a similar moment to reflect upon in determining Shawn Thornton’s punishment.
In 2004, Steve Moore checked then-Vancouver Canuck’s captain Markus Nasland in a game with Moore’s Colorado Avalanche. Naslund left the ice and did no return.
Later that season, in a game between the same two clubs in Vancouver, multiple Canucks’ players took turns trying to goad Moore into a fight to “atone for his sin.”
And in the third period, with the Avs up 8-2, Todd Bertuzzi took matters – and Steve Moore’s career – into his own hands.
Bertuzzi skated up to Moore from behind, grabbed the collar of Moore’s jersey, punched him in the back of the head with a gloved hand, and then rode Moore to the ice, driving him face-first into the cold, solid surface.
Steve Moore left the ice on a stretcher, and never played another game of professional hockey after that night. Todd Bertuzzi was suspended for the remainder of the season – including playoffs – which amounted to 20 games.
It is abhorrent to me that Todd Bertuzzi is still collecting a paycheck in the NHL, while Steve Moore will never be able to play hockey again.
The NHL wants to take player safety – and specifically concussions – seriously. But how can it be taken seriously when you have players running around ASSAULTING other players?
Consider what would happen if this type of situation were to occur in an office. Or a retail store, a restaurant, or a car dealership. The offending employee would be fired without hesitation, and criminal charges would most likely be filed.
I understand that hockey players assume a certain level of risk due to the nature of the game. I, for one, am an advocate of keeping fighting in the sport. It does, to a degree, help the sport police itself. And when two players fight, it is a mutually-agreed upon action.
But this was no fight. This was, just like to Bertuzzi incident, an assault. And Thornton should have to answer for his actions SEVERELY.
National Hockey League; listen up. If you want to end this crap (and it is CRAP), and do so quickly, then stop with the predetermined number of games for a suspension. When there is clear malicious intent – and in the Neal knee-to-the-head, the Bertuzzi assault of Steve Moore, and the Thornton attack against Brooks Orpik – you can see clear malicious intent. That is the key phrase, folks. NHL, bring down the hammer. Someone has to be the example. Stop waiting for a repeat offender to slip up (like Matt Cooke, who has completely turned his game around) and then pounce on him.
Shawn Thornton was your opportunity, National Hockey League.
This stopped being a laughing matter long ago.
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Pittsburgh, Pa. Class of 2000 graduate from Robert Morris University with a B.A. in Mass Communications. Full-time objective sports fan.