Shawn Thornton was suspended 15 games by the NHL for his actions in the game against the Penguins, the longest suspension handed out by the league in a very long time.
As most people know, the incident was most unfortunate. Many people who didn't see the game have been led to believe that Thornton more or less jumped Brooks Orpik unprovoked, like an assault on the street. While it doesn't excuse Thornton's actions, if you think there is a problem in the NHL, and you truly want to understand it, understanding the circumstances is critical. In fact Shawn Thornton was provoked. The Penguins were playing very recklessly. Early in the game Orpik had hit Eriksson of the Bruins, who had already suffered a concussion earlier this season. It was an open ice hit of the sort that many hockey fans feel should not be penalized because it would take away from the physicality of the game. If you watch the replay, Orpik clearly drives his shoulder into Eriksson's head. You could claim that the initial point of contact was shoulder to shoulder or that Eriksson had his head down, etc. But I can't explain why nobody at the NHL has even questioned the legality of this hit. At the very least it should have been a roughing call on the ice, particularly given the fact that Eriksson had not yet touched the puck. With Eriksson injured in full view of the bench, and no penalty called, it put a lot of pressure on Thornton to take some sort of action. That's what he is paid to do. He tried to fight Orpik, but Orpik refused. Later in the game Brad Marchand was tripped by Sydney Crosby, and while on is knees on the ice James Neal skated by and struck him on the side of the head with his knee. This was in full view of the bench and Thornton. The tripping penalty had not been called, and neither had the hit to the head. In a cowardly manner, Neal had immediately skated off the ice. When Thornton saw the tussle at center ice involving Orpik he saw his chance to take some sort of action. He took Orpik down from behind and hit him several times on his face/helmet with gloves on.
Here's the thing that bugs me about all this. Had Orpik stood up afterward, what do you think would have happened? Would Thornton have been suspended at all? True, he went after someone who had not agreed to fight, but in a scrum, players hit one another all of the time, without there being a fight. In fact, by not dropping his gloves, Thornton's actions could be seen as just another pounding in a scrum, albeit a nasty one. If you look at the replay closely, you see that Orpik's head never hits the ice, even as Thornton hits him while lying on his back. One wonders just how hard those hits could have been. The worst thing Thornton did was take Orpik down from behind. So again, I ask, had Orpik skated off afterward, would there have been a suspension? I think not. But the sight of Orpik being taken off the ice on a backboard upset everyone. The way this injury happened was embarrasing for the league and hockey fans everywhere. That's the real reason they threw the book at Thornton.
And what of Neal? He was given a 5 game suspension prior to Thornton's hearing. But I doubt he'd have been suspended either, had Orpik not been carried off the ice. Even though this was a clear-cut hit to the head, was behind the play, and clearly malicious, Brad Marchand was not injured. Under Shanahan's system of justice, it is almost always injuries that are punished, not actions, and I think this is a mistake.
Prior to all this, Douggie Hamilton, the Bruins young defenseman, shoved an opposing player into the boards head first with a cross check right on the numbers. Thankfully the other player got up. Play resumed; even though this was a clear violation of rule 43, there was no penalty handed out and no hearing. Why? Because the other player survived this reckless hit. Had he been taken off the ice on a backboard Hamilton would have been fined, if not suspended. This is not an effective way to administer justice. It's too capricious. Take two identical situations like Hamilton's hit. In the first case the other player gets his hands up just in time to keep from hitting his head on the boards. In the second case, he doesn't. You can't have a system of justice that only punishes the second case. Doing it this way invites criticism and ridicule and ultimately undermines everyone's confidence in the system. For the players, it creates a random chance that they could be severely punished for doing something they have not even been criticized or warned about doing previously, all because the other player landed differently or was unable to get his hands up in time to protect himself.
Rather than wait for someone to get hurt, I believe that every player should be punished who drives his shoulder into someone's head, or pushes a player from behind into the boards, or knocks a player down and hits him repeatedly without first consenting to a fight. That's how you get these plays out of the game, with major penalties on the ice, and fines or suspensions off it. Stop the problem before someone get's hurt, rather than overreact after it happens.
At the Day's of Y'Orr blog,Greg Ezell wrote,
The sad thing is that if Thornton lined Orpik up and elbowed him in the
head or went knee-on-knee his suspension would have been much, much less
than it is now. That's where the hypocrisy in all this lies. A
concussion is a concussion is a concussion, but the way it's delivered
is the only issue.
He's exactly right. Shanahan and the NHL are much more worried about how things appear rather than protecting the player's safety. They aren't even being consistent with their usual handing out of suspensions when people get hurt. That's because they are only doing what they think will make the league look good. No injury and nobody cares = no suspension. People are upset = big suspension.
For me, the scariest part of the NHL's perverse justice system was revealed in the Thornton mess. What's going to happen when a guy gets carted off the ice on a backboard after a fight? Are they going to suspend the other player for punching? And if they hand out no punishment at all, how is this going to play for those in Canada who want to ban fighting altogether?
Lastly, if the league is really serious about stopping head injuries, then it's time to get rid of the armored shoulder pads. These pads are doing a great job protecting shoulders, but it is coming at the price of much more serious head injuries. If the league was truly interested in player safety, first and foremost, this should have been their first move.