Thornton - Orpik example of why fighting in NHL should stay

Thornton - Orpik example of why fighting in NHL should stay
December 23, 2013, 6:45 pm
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(AP Photo)

Brendan Shanahan handed down a 15-game suspension to Bruins Forward Shawn Thornton for his on ice mugging of Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik. Given the lack of any supplemental discipline history in Thornton’s career and the innocuous nature of the actual punches, many think this was too harsh a penalty. Others have said that a 15-game banishment was more than justified, and the NHL has got to send a message about incidents like these.  

Opinions on both sides of this debate have merit and have been debated vigorously since that judgment. On CSNNE.com, Bruins beat writer Joe Haggerty brilliantly laid out the problems that he had with the Thornton suspension.

Unfortunately some members of the media, like Boston.com columnist Chris Gasper, are seizing upon this incident as another opportunity to denounce fighting in the NHL.

This is both troubling and confusing. When the incidents of that game are boiled down to their base details, the Bruins and Penguins demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt is that a league without fighting would be just as, if not more dangerous, than one without it.

But why would the facts get in the way of a good anti-fighting soliloquy, like the one written by Gasper. If Chris spent as much time watching hockey as he did perusing his thesaurus, he might understand what he watched in that Bruins game was a glimpse of the NHL without fighting.

First of all, none of the injuries that occurred in that Penguins and Bruins game were the result of a hockey fight. Not Eriksson’s, not Chris Kelly’s and not even Orpik’s.

Loui Eriksson was hit and concussed by a borderline, predatory check from Orpik. That’s Orpik’s forte. Big, borderline, opportunistic hits designed to knock players like Jeff Skinner, Derek Stepan and Eriksson out of a game. It was the knee to knee hit on Stepan in 2012 that spawned an epic John Tortorella rant that summarized both Orpik and the Penguins organization in a nutshell:  Cheap, filthy and hypocritical.

We all know the Penguins two-faced history when it comes to player safety, but why might you ask is Orpik hypocritical?

Just like Gasper, Orpik wants fighting gone too. Even though he’s 6’2” and 219 lbs. Orpik rarely fights. Unless he’s forced to fight, like after a kneeing major in the 2010 preseason, or when an opponent like Alex Borrows presents little challenge, Oprik’s gloves are glued on tighter than the Big Dig’s ceiling tiles.  Why might that be? Well, according to Pittsburgh Penguins beat writer Josh Yohe, Orpik doesn’t want to risk becoming a “vegetable”.  And there lies the double standard. Orpik would prefer a league where he can forever roam the grey area of the rulebook, picking his spots and dishing out head trauma on his own terms, without the risk of an occasional fistic reprisal.

Gaspar also defends Orpik’s decision not to fight. “Why should he take a fight he can’t win for an unpenalized hit?”

Unpenalized? Sure.

Clean? Not so fast, Chris. In today’s NHL, nobody really knows how “clean” or dirty a hit is until it gets reviewed by Shanahan and Player Safety. Alex Edler, Michael Grabner, Ryan Garbutt, Jessie Winchester, Jared Cowen and Dion Phaneuf have all been suspended this season for hits that went uncalled on the ice. Given the malicious nature of the hit, the injurious result, and Orpik’s rep as a predator who picks his spots, a fight was more than warranted. In hindsight, Orpik would have probably been the wiser to drop the gloves.

Unfortunately for Orpik, he declined and got a taste of what an NHL without “the code” and fighting would be like, and it left him strapped to a back board. In a league without fighting, retaliation would bypass the chance to answer for transgressions face to face, and escalate directly to what we saw Saturday.

Also erroneous is Gasper’s vision of on ice utopia.  He claims that once the fighting goes, so will enforcers. Yes enforcers like Thornton, Brian McGrattan and Colton Orr will probably cease to exist.  But the role will unfortunately evolve, or more accurately, devolve as a new breed of enforcer will emerge and will probably be almost identical to the rats they try to control today.  

Instead of a fighter, “opportunistic cheap-shot artists” like Orpik and Pat Kaleta become the new constables. The kind of players who, when opportunity presents itself, strike within the flow of the game and don’t care who they target. And once the new arbiters of NHL justice eventually get suspended enough, teams will waive them, like Buffalo did with Kaleta, and find another player who is more than willing to fill that role in exchange for an NHL roster spot.  “Acts of retribution” will replace fighting and be the new coin of the realm for all outstanding on-ice debts.

Chris probably laughs at this notion, but what gave credence to this future are the “Player Safety” rulings from Saturday’s events. By suspending James Neal for 5 games and Shawn Thornton for 15, the only real message sent by Shanahan is if you’re going to settle a score, make it look like a hockey play.  

That’s what every NHL player is thinking after repeat offender James Neal’s thinly veiled attempt to replay Brad Marchand for boarding him in last year’s playoffs only got him 5 games.  If a guy like Marchand won’t fight and square their tab honorably, wait.  Wait till he’s in a vulnerable position, deliver the most injurious form of battery available, and pretend it was an accident. In fact, asking him to fight is a bad idea as it may be caught on video and used against you in a hearing, so you’re better off targeting your victim out of the blue. Rewarding and tacitly encouraging Neal’s kind of subterfuge and deception will only worsen the fundamental lack of respect that makes today’s game so dangerous.

What Chris Gaspar and others like him fail to understand, despite their well-meaning intentions is that when players, coaches and GMs talk about the game today lacking respect, they don’t mean for other players. They mean for the consequences of their actions. Players need to think about the ramifications that sticking out a knee or an elbow or hitting someone facing the boards in the name plate will have before they do it, no matter what they think of the guy in the opposite sweater.  

Like it or not, having an on-ice deterrent like fighting and being held accountable by their peers increases that level of respect. And according to a recent survey, 98% of the players themselves agree with this.  They know that a fight, to either settle a score or to release emotions inherent to NHL hockey, is important and vastly preferable to the glimpse of the future without fighting the Bruins and the Penguins provided.