Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hypocrisy of the Shawn Thornton Suspension

Disclosure #1) I am a Boston Bruins fan so let's get that out of the way. I think what the NHL did by suspending Shawn Thornton for 15 games is one of the most chickenbleep politically motivated moves they've ever done.

There are a lot of hockey fans who have commented that Thornton is a thug and he deserved what he got and it should have been 20 games, etc. I'd like to point out that most of these same people are the ones who also say that James Neal kneeing Brad Marchand in the head in the same game is what Marchand deserved.

Let's get all that white noise out of the way and take this for what it was:

A simple mistake by Thornton where he got caught up the emotion of the events leading up to why he went after Orpik like he did.

Disclosure #2: I don't condone or support what Thornton did in any way shape or form, but I can see why it happened.

Let's start with the most guilty parties (after Thornton of course):

Brad Meier and Gord Dwyer

Who are they? The referees who were assigned to that game on December 7 in Boston. The referees should know about potential issues with teams and recent events leading up to the games they are assigned to.

To understand what led up to Thorton's attack on Brooks Orpik, you have to go back to October 23, 2013 where Buffalo Sabre John Scott brutally elbowed Bruins forward Loui Eriksson concussing him and causing him to miss about three weeks of action.

Here's a GIF of the Scott hit on Ericsson:

Scott is a big man at 6' 7" and about 250 pounds and is not out there for his skating and puck handling skills. Eriksson at 6' 2" 196 pounds, is however. Scott was a first time offender and got suspended for 7 games by the NHL's Department of Player Safety.

Fast forward to December 5th in Montreal against the Canadiens where Canadien Max Pacioretty  boarded Bruin defenseman Johnny Boychuk into the corner boards where Boychuk fell awkwardly and couldn't get up after the hit and had to be taken off on a stretcher.

Nobody, and I mean nobody from the Bruins players, coaches, management or Bruins fans were calling this a dirty hit and the Bruins did not seek any retribution for Pacioretty's hit. Boychuk missed a few games with a strained back and luckily that was it.

Bruins head coach Claude Julien:

“It was deserving of a two-minute penalty,” 
“I looked at it and it was, and I’m being honest, I don’t think it was more than that. I think it’s probably the way he went into the boards that did most of the damage. I don’t think it was the severity of the hit. We have to be honest if we’re going to clean up this game, and to turn around and say it should’ve been a game suspension, I don’t think so.”

Pacioretty was remorseful about the hit as well:

“I asked people, because I literally didn’t know what happened,” he said. “They said, I think he twisted his back or something in regards to that. I obviously feel terrible, I’ve been in that situation before, and I had no intent to injury anybody. I thought I was just playing hard. I hope everything’s going to be all right for him. 

“You know what, I think the team gave me the benefit of the doubt, the few guys I talked to about it. I, honest to God, didn’t have any intentions of doing anything like that. Like I said, I hope he gets better quick.”

What Pacioretty was referring to was a hit by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara on March 8, 2011 where Pacioretty hit the stanchion at the end of the Canadiens' bench and was also taken off on a stretcher. Chara wasn't trying to injure Pacioretty but caught him in a bad place. Which is why the NHL has now mandated that the end glass be rounded to prevent further injuries. Of course, Montreal fans overreacted and wanted Chara arrested, but that's another story...

Boston Bruins announcer Jack Edwards and play by play (and former player) Andy Brickley noted that the area where Pacioretty hit was a dangerous place and Brickley noted that Chara's hit was late and Chara was penalized for the hit.

Chara was not suspended.

So let's recap:

We have John Scott concussing Loui Eriksson and Johnny Boychuk taken off on a stretcher two nights before the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston's TD Garden.

Enter Brooks Orpik 21 seconds into the game:

Now the case has been made that Eriksson did touch the puck so he was eligible to be hit. There are those (mostly Penguins fans) who called this a clean hit.

Here is a video of the hit:

Mistake Number 1: This should have been called interference as Eriksson did not have possession of the puck and Orpik did not alter his path in any way to chase the puck which clearly went far away from Eriksson.

This is mistake #1 by referees Meier and Dwyer.

Orpik's hit was a message hit as this was the last regular season meeting between the Penguins and the Bruins and the only way they play each other again would likely be for the Eastern Conference Finals. The referees should be well aware of this and be looking to control the emotional level of the game. Since this hit occurred almost immediately after the game's opening face off, this should have at least got the ref's attention.

Mistake #2: Orpik's shoulder catches Eriksson on the jaw causing him to be concussed for the second time this year. Eriksson, in a defenseless position is unable to brace or protect himself from Orpik's hit. By playing the puck Eriksson does not put himself in a vulnerable position, he's starting a turn. Orpik sees this and continues his path toward Eriksson making full contact with the head being the principal point of contact.

Ericsson didn't put himself in Orpik's path, Orpik continued after Ericsson well after the puck veers off in the opposite direction. Orpik had plenty of time to either ease up or not make contact. Since the puck went away from both players, Orpik's hit should have been ruled interference as he hit a player who was not in possession of the puck nor was he in the area of the puck at the time of the hit.

The NFL now regularly calls penalties on hits on vulnerable players. Debate this if you want, but it is now illegal to come flying across the field at full speed and nail a receiver going for a pass who cannot defend himself. Same thing applies here, it should have been called interference which was my initial reaction when I saw the hit live and should have been the referee's call as well.

Clean hit?


This is also violation of NHL Rule 48, Illegal Check to the Head

48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
Orpik, as mentioned did not make any attempt to avoid Eriksson and the principal point of contact was Eriksson's head.
Mistake #3: The referees call Zdeno Chara for roughing immediately after the play where Eriksson gets hurt. This did nothing but raise the temperature and then set off Shawn Thornton who went after Orpik, which led to Mistake #4.
Mistake #4: Sean Thornton tries to engage Orpik into a fight. For those of you who do not understand fighting's place in hockey, this is a perfect illustration of why it is and should continue to have a place in this game. Please spare me any comparisons with other sports. They do not apply. If Orpik wants to run less physical players like Eriksson, then he needs to answer to guys like Shawn Thornton. That is his primary job. He is an enforcer and he's there to have his teammate's backs.
Thornton does this job very well and up until this incident has never been fined, disciplined nor suspended in his 11 year NHL career. And to put a finer point on this, neither had John Scott. Thornton, however can play hockey. He's not just out there to intimidate or fight like Scott is.
Orpik is not a fighter and would not throw the gloves down and engage Thornton. Fine. You hit like that, expect Thornton to come calling especially when it caused Eriksson to have his second concussion this season.
Thornton gets a penalty for roughing leading to a Penguins power play goal which pisses the Bruins and Thornton off even more.
Mistake #5: Along comes all world punk Penguins forward James Neal. As Bruin Brad Marchand gets tripped by Penguin Sydney Crosby, Marchand is on the ice on all fours and just like Eriksson, in a defenseless position.
Neal goes out of his way to skate into Marchand and knee him in the head. This is one of the most dirty plays in hockey. 
The NHL suspended Neal 5 games for this hit.

Marchand was not injured on the play which is a factor in how the NHL metes out discipline. Neal also has a history and has been suspended twice and fined one before by the NHL in Neal's 6 year NHL career.
This is Mistake #5 as Neal, by rule should have been given a match penalty and ejected from the game. Instead he was given a 2 minute minor penalty for kneeing.
21.1 Match Penalty - A match penalty involves the suspension of a player for the balance of the game and the offender shall be ordered to the dressing room immediately.
A match penalty shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure or who deliberately injures an opponent in any manner.
A scrum ensued right after Neal's hit and Shawn Thornton saw Orpik on the ice and saw an opportunity to go after Orpik.
What Thornton did was wrong. He grabs Orpik by the back of his jersey and slew foots him pulling him down to the ice. Once Orpik was on the ice, Thornton punches him twice with a gloved hand concussing Orpik.
Orpik was taken off on a stretcher and Thornton was given (rightfully) a match penalty.
Here is a video that shows this sequence of events from when Marchand is tripped by Crosby, then run into by Neal and then Thornton goes after Orpik.

Can't say it enough, what Thornton did was wrong. What Neal did was worse except Marchand was lucky enough not to be injured. Had Marchand been concussed, we'd be looking at a longer suspension for Neal. 
This is where the NHL is wrong, reckless hits and behavior should be given maximum punishment and length of suspension should not be based on whether an injury resulted.
Vice President of Hockey and Business Development and Director of Player Safety, Brendan Shanahan (a former player and no stranger to the penalty box himself) says it on every suspension video if an injury resulted or not. 
This is wrong. Injuries or not, suspensions should be judged by the actions not the results.
For those who think that Shawn Thornton is some mindless thug who is out to beat on people every game, check out his post game remarks:

And here's James Neal after the game:

Thornton's pretty remorseful and honest about how he felt where Neal was pretty blase about the incident with Marchand and he's absolutely lying about trying to avoid him.

Watch Brendan Shanahan again explain what Neal's intent was in the video and see if he agrees with that.

Neal's own coach, Dan Bylsma had this to say about Neal's behavior:

"I don't think there's any question that James continued on his path and runs into Marchand,"
So after all of this we have two players injured, Eriksson and Orpik. But mostly anyone can talk about is Thornton. James Neal is forgotten and Loui Eriksson is sure as hell forgotten except for Bruins fans.

I even head an NHL commentator say that he believes that when an incident like Thornton - Orpik happens, the player who caused the injury should be out as long as the injured player.

Well, if that were the case, how long would Orpik be suspended for?

Eriksson isn't coming back any time soon.

Here's another great quote by Neal:

"It’s something that needs to be taken out of the game," Neal said. "We talk about it all the time. It’s not a fun situation to be part of."

So what did the Penguins "who talk about it all the time" learn about hits to the head?

Here's a video of Pittsburgh's Deryk Engelland delivering a head shot to Detroit Red Wing Justin Abdelkader on Saturday night, December 14:

Apparently not a whole lot.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a history of devastating injuries with the Bruins:

Matt Cook's hit on Marc Savard helped to end his career. Savard was a teammate of Thornton.

And let's not forget Ulf Samuelsson taking out Cam Neely which also effectively ended Neely's career.

Neely is the current president of the Boston Bruins and is largely responsible for bringing the Bruins out of the doldrums that plagued the team for about 25 years.

All of that comes into play when a player like Shawn Thornton steps on the ice to back up his teammates. You can call it dirty, disgusting and cheap, and even Shawn Thornton would agree that what he did was over the line. But if you understand what led up to what happened, you would then understand why it happened.

The NHL has to be consistent with punishments and the referees have to be in control of games that become emotional. It's their job to understand the pulse of the game and to rein in anything that could lead to what happened between Boston and Pittsburgh or it will keep happening.

John Scott gets 7 games, James Neal gets 5 games and Shawn Thornton gets 15 games. 

Does that make any sense?

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