Thornton's penalty a green light to NHL predators

Thornton's penalty a green light to NHL predators
December 15, 2013, 9:45 am
Share This Post

In the world of nature, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

That’s the theory Sir Isaac Newton put forth 325 years or so ago, and it applies to professional hockey, as well.

That’s what is of particular concern with the Saturday afternoon news that B’s enforcer Shawn Thornton was suspended 15 games for “punching an unsuspecting opponent, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, and causing a serious injury” during the first period of last weekend’s win over the Penguins at TD Garden.

Clearly Thornton deserved a lengthy suspension for snapping on the ice as he dragged Orpik down from behind and punched him twice in the head, knocking him unconscious, as Orpik lay defenseless. It happened during a stoppage in play, and the NHL's director of player safety, Brendan Shanahan, stressed it was “a non-hockey play” that merited a different level of discipline.

A 15-gamer is the longest suspension handed out by Shanahan during the regular season in the three years he’s handled NHL disciplinary matters, and it makes a few important statements to the rest of the league.

It’s a severe sentence for Thornton, a first-time offender who compiled nearly 900 PIMs without incident as an NHL enforcer. He has a well-deserved reputation of being clean and honorable, and had never crossed the line to hurt a fellow player. Still, a harsh penalty is justified on nearly every level given his regrettable actions, though the NHL got it right by coming in under the 20-game suspension mark that defines despicable acts from guys like Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi.

However, the decision to throw the book at an honest, respectable enforcer like Thornton could also be setting a dangerous precedent.

The suspension covers the league in the wake of anti-fighting sentiments with a growing number of lawsuits on the horizon, and it placates the non-hockey crowd that can’t begin to understand the sometimes violent code of honor that’s always existed in hockey. It’s a delicate balance between predator and enforcer that’s always kept both NHL species in check.

But now the scales seem to be starting to tip more toward the hyena than the lion.

Thornton’s suspension sends the message to players like Orpik that it’s okay to target skill players around the NHL with a “human missile” hit like the one the Pittsburgh defenseman was intent on delivering last weekend to Loui Eriksson, which is what prompted Thornton's response.

“Let’s talk about Orpik,” said ex-NHL (and Bruins) coach Don Cherry during his Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada. “[It] was a mean hit. Here’s [Eriksson] just coming back from a concussion, and [Orpik] runs into him like that."

Eriksson didn’t have the puck and had his back turned when he got smoked by an Orpik check to the upper body, which was designed to deliver a message to the Bruins.

"If Orpik is going to run and hit a guy like that," continued Cherry, "then he’s got to pay the price. He’s got to step up if you’re going to act like that . . . I’m telling the real world what goes on. If you hit like that and act like that, be prepared because somebody is coming."

Orpik has a league-wide reputation as an opportunist consistently looking to take out players who won’t fight back. Orpik is no stranger to the world of supplementary discipline; he served a three-game suspension back in 2007 for fracturing Erik Cole’s neck on a nasty hit from behind. That hit ended Cole’s season, and his hit on Eriksson may very well end Eriksson's, as well, given the unpredictable nature of multiple head injuries.

The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Orpik is plenty big enough and plenty strong enough to answer for actions like the hits on Cole and Eriksson. But the Boston College alumnus has consistently refused to do so, earning him a reputation as a player who wants to play a mean, hard game but isn’t willing to back it up. That’s something most players around the NHL have no respect for.

Now the league appears to be protecting predators like Orpik, opening the door for wanton hits on vulnerable skill players. That’s a scary message from the NHL, given that fans pay good money to see players like Eriksson, not Orpik.

"Thornton got 15 games, and I think it was too much," said Cherry. "I thought [a 10-game suspension] was good.”

Those looking to target the other team’s best players for hits designed to injure can do so with seeming impunity, knowing that the NHL’s long arm of the law will protect them.

Thornton isn’t likely to ever go after another player like Orpik again after having his reputation tarnished, and his pocketbook lightened by $85,000, by last weekend’s incident and subsequent punishment. That’s got to be a frightening realization for players like Eriksson, now sidelined after suffering his second concussion in less than two months.

Nobody -- not Orpik, not Eriksson and not any of the scores of NHL players currently out with head injuries -- deserves a concussion. All players should feel the freedom to play their game without thinking they’re in the crosshairs.

But that might not be possible now. The league has opted to protect the opportunistic predator rather than the respectful enforcer. That’s the message players on both sides of the coin will take from Thornton’s 15-game suspension, and the NHL will be a much more dangerous place because of it.