NHL voices weigh in after Thornton's K.O. of Orpik

NHL voices weigh in after Thornton's K.O. of Orpik
December 10, 2013, 12:00 am
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(AP Photo)

Plenty of arguments still raging about the Shawn Thornton/Brooks Orpik situation a couple of days later as the Bruins have moved on to Western Canada for dates with Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. The trip to the West Coast of Canada will fill out the rest of their week, but back on the ranch plenty of old school hockey types weighed in Thornton’s actions.

The common denominator among those voices?

As callous and crude as it is to say, that perhaps a player like Brooks Orpik – known for playing on the edge and taking runs at other team’s skill guys – had something coming to him if he wasn’t willing to defend himself. Orpik turned into a human missile while cleaning the clock of Loui Eriksson on the very first shift of the game, and was going to crush the Swedish forward whether or not he had the puck.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma felt it was a hockey play, but Bruins coach Claude Julien felt very differently about the opening play that set everything else into motion, and Pittsburgh’s actions when James Neal attempted to deflect responsibility for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head.

“Thorny did cross the line, and some others did too. You have to man up to those things, and I think he did,” said Julien in Toronto on Sunday, before referencing Neal. “He’s being truthful. That’s more than we can say about players that pretend that it wasn’t done on purpose.”  

As the game progressed Thornton challenged Orpik to a fight, and the former Boston College defenseman declined the invitation as he’s done with all invitations to fight over the last five years. To make matters worse, the refs never called Orpik for a penalty on his kamikaze mission to take out Eriksson, and then tagged Thornton with a roughing call for challenging Orpik to a fight.

The Penguins scored on the ensuing power play, refs Gord Dwyer and Brad Meier completely lost control of two teams that clearly hate each other and the dye was case for Thornton’s assault on Orpik. There’s no excuse for what Thornton did while completely snapping on Orpik: nobody can slew foot an unsuspecting player and then beat him unconscious as he lays defenseless on the ice.

Thornton is looking at a 10-game suspension from the NHL lawmakers, and the watery eyes and cracked voice after Saturday’s game vs. Pittsburgh revealed a player that was ready to take responsibility. Thornton knows that his clean, honest reputation built over 11 NHL seasons will now take a hit, but some of his NHL brothers understood exactly where he was coming from.

None of them condoned it, but they understood it. Former Bruins pugilist P.J. Stock was on Hockey Night in Canada detailing the events as they happened, and what pushed Thornton over the edge. Former NHL power forward and current Flyers analyst Rick Tocchet gave his thoughts to Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and they were eye-opening.

“I love Brooks and the way he plays,” said Rick Tocchet. “But, when you play on the edge the way he does, I personally think that you should fight, at least occasionally. I don't think Brooks is a dirty player at all, but when you play that style, you're going to have some borderline hits on occasion. They're impossible to ignore. So I think it would serve him well to fight some of the time.”

Tocchet supports the commonly-held NHL belief that fighting defuses dirty hits, and one has to wonder, right or wrong, whether Orpik will think long and hard before delivering another of those concussive hits to a Bruins player. It’s an old school way to deliver a message on the ice that also happens to be very illegal in this day and age, but Tocchet understands why Thornton went after Orpik.

“I truly do,” said Tocchet. “Look at what happened last night. You know coming into the game that Boston is sensitive because (defenseman Johnny) Boychuk just got hurt (against Montreal). You know the Penguins and Bruins don't like each other. So when you hit one of their best players on the first shift, even though the hit was totally clean, you know things could get nasty.”

Former NHL agitator Matthew Barnaby wrote his own blog based off the events after sleeping on it Saturday night, and came to some of the conclusions – including his own personal theory that Brad Marchand deserved the James Neal knee to the heated.

“Zdeno Chara and Shawn Thornton do what good captains and great teammates do . . . They stand up and challenge Orpik for concussing one of their star players. Many feel that you don’t have to answer for clean hits, but those are mostly from people that never have laced ‘em up, or have never played at the level that these guys play,” said Barnaby. “Big hits are a part of the game. So is intimidation and defending teammates. So I love what Boston did in defending Eriksson early on.”

Barnaby went on to detail his thoughts about the Thornton/Orpik episode, and they’re a little different than Tocchet’s. But he can still put himself in Thornton’s shoes right up until the moment he started pummeling Orpik on the ice.

“Saturday night he exemplified a lot of what I love about [Shawn Thornton]. Stood up for a teammate. Tried to put the team 1st but honorable was NO where in sight. What Thornton did was disgusting. He wanted a fight, and wanted to make Orpik pay for hurting one of their stars,” wrote Barnaby. “He wanted to show everyone that Boston will not be bullied and that there is a price to pay for hurting one of theirs.

“I love that mentality and always will. Sue me!! That’s who I am. Once Orpik was obvious in showing that he wanted nothing to do with fighting, that’s where it should have ended. Instead Thornton took it upon himself to slew foot, knockout, and continue to punch away at a defenseless player.”

One place I differ with Barnaby: Orpik should have to fight if he wants to knock guys out of hockey games. Look at the Dallas/Boston game earlier this season when Johnny Boychuk smoked Erik Cole with a clean, devastating hit. The B’s defenseman is far from a fighter, but he was ready to throw down with Vern Fiddler when he came looking for payback right after the hit.

That’s the way it goes in today’s NHL, and perhaps the best way to defuse those situations before one player assaults another one on the ice.

That’s pretty much where Thornton lost everyone both old school and new school, but there are more than a few factors to blame for what led up to Saturday night’s violent ugliness.