Vulgar Opinions: Thornton Suspension Misses The Mark
Bruins forward Shawn Thornton was suspended 15 games for his slewfoot and sucker punching of Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. In doing so, the NHL went in the face of two precedents it has set, one earlier this season, one several years ago. The first of which is Sabres coach Ron Rolston’s mystifying fine for “player selection” when John Scott was left on the ice while Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle did not exercise his right to last change and lined up Phil Kessel across from Scott. In all the arbitrary-ness, the NHL wanted to send a message that coaches can, and will be held responsible for their players committing heinous acts on the ice.
You know, unless you’re Claude Julien I guess.
The second precedent the NHL decided not to follow was that which it set forth after the Todd Bertuzzi incident. Of course there are a few key differences between the incidents. Bertuzzi sucker punched Steve Moore from behind resulting in a fall to the ice and the subsequent breaking of Steve Moore’s neck in the scrum when several players landed on him. Shawn Thornton threw Brooks Orpik to the ice himself (with a slewfoot, a suspendable offense in itself) because if anyone was going to break Brooks Orpik’s neck, it was damn sure going to be Shawn Thornton.
Obviously there are many, many similarities which make the incidents comparable. Thornton had gone after Orpik earlier in the game and had become incensed with Orpik’s refusal to “answer the bell,” much like the Canucks had gone after Moore. The Canucks were mad at Moore for a hit on Markus Naslund, and the Bruins were mad at Orpik for a hit on Loui Eriksson. And while the results of the injuries were different, they were both incredibly serious. Thronton sucker punched a defenseless Orpik, much like Bertuzzi sucker punched a defenseless Steve Moore. Bertuzzi didn’t exist in a system of supplementary discipline like the one we know today, and likewise, with no prior incidents, neither did Shawn Thornton. The NHL can’t allow circumstances or luck (in Moore’s case the bad luck of having several players fall onto his head) to dictate how they suspend players. If they do, too many players like Thornton are going to get off light for incidents that were so close to being catastrophically damaging to a player’s well being.
Todd Bertuzzi was suspended for the remainder of the NHL season, which included 13 regular season games and 7 playoff games for a total of 20 games. The Vancouver Canucks were also fined $250,000 for the incident. Todd Bertuzzi was charged with ‘assault causing bodily harm’ which resulted in having to complete 80 hours of community service and serve one year of probation (which allowed him to avoid acquiring a criminal record). Steve Moore also sued Todd Bertuzzi (in the Ontario Superior Court) seeking damages for the injury and concussion-related symptoms with a trial date set on September 8th, 2014.
All of that aside, why the NHL chose not to pursue a Bertuzii-esque suspension for a remarkably similar incident is puzzling to me, especially with the concussion lawsuit from former players looming in the background. Even if the NHL does not care about player safety (and I honestly don’t know if it does or not), one would think they at least care about doing a bit more to avoid liability. Especially nowadays when concussions mean “might never play hockey again.” Brooks Orpik doesn’t need to break his neck to suffer as much as Steve Moore and Shawn Thornton should pay a high price for that.
The looming and oft forgotten question is, does the suspension deter players from committing such heinous acts in the future? Fifteen games is at least enough to get players thinking about such actions. Obviously Shawn Thornton did what he did, so they’re not a complete deterrent, but unprovoked acts of aggression against an unwilling opponent that proceed to the point of Thornton’s assault are rare (unless your name is Ray Emery). However, given that Thornton, by no means an integral player, is going to miss 15 relatively unimportant games for a team that’s probably guaranteed to make the playoffs, thus allowing the Bruins to escape any real punishment and temporarily set back one of their biggest rivals, will probably allow other players to wonder if they can send a message while hurting someone just bad enough to avoid facing any real consequences.
I would have at least given Thornton the same length suspension and the Bruins the same fine as Bertuzzi and the Canucks, although since $250,000 is pretty much nothing, I probably would have taken a draft pick instead. That way you’re at least starting where you left off. Considering how much more we know about concussions and their long term effects, I think there is a definite case to be made for being much, much harsher. Taking this into account, and taking into account the Pacioretty and Miller injuries and the Bruins having 1). no qualms about injuring an opponent with reckless play, and 2). no qualms about injuring an opponent in retribution for a wrong, whether real or perceived (and while dirty and suspendable itself, the Orpik hit on Eriksson was hardly a contract killing), I would suspend Thornton the remainder of the season and playoffs and dock the Bruins a first round draft pick, if not giving them a one year suspension from the NHL draft entirely. Wildly chaotic vigilante justice is a thing that needs to end, especially if the players are going to show themselves incapable of self-control. The desire for such justice needs to be removed from the individual minds of players and it needs to be removed from the culture of locker rooms.
Boston wouldn’t have reacted the same way to the Lucic – Miller incident as Buffalo did? Well they damn well better. (And yes this conversation could easily be about John Scott and the Buffalo Sabres.)
The NHL needs to get its shit together so the players trust the people in charge to competently handle things. Why the hell do they think the players are so willing do do it themselves?