One week after his assault on Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, Bruins forward Shawn Thornton was hit with a 15-game suspension by the NHL on Saturday. It's the longest regular-season banishment handed down by the league since Chris Simon of the New York Islanders received 30 games in December 2007 for stomping on the leg of Penguins forward Jarkko Ruutu with his skate.
It's also the lengthiest regular-season suspension handed by Brendan Shanahan since he took over supplemental discipline before the 2011-12 season.
Yet Thornton still got off easy. He should be sitting for the rest of the season.
The light sentence probably has everything to do with Thornton having a clean record during his 11 seasons in the NHL. That likely means nothing to Orpik, who will be out indefinitely due to a brain injury suffered during what would be considered a criminal attack in any other walk of life.
If you think the terms "assault" and "criminal attack" are whiny words used by a writer who has never played in the NHL, what if similar descriptors were used by an NHL player? Brad Richards of the New York Rangers did not speak directly about the Thornton-Orpik incident when asked about it Wednesday, but he had strong words about an act of that nature taking place on a hockey rink.
"It still all comes down to us on the ice," Richards said. "It always comes down to that. If you’re willing to do something to someone’s head, and you did it on the street, you’d be in jail. Fighting, honest fighting, that’s part of the game. Going after people’s heads, that has to come from within the players. Suspensions obviously aren’t scaring anybody."
The last line is particularly important in this case. Shanahan has done an admiral job of levying suspensions, but Richards is correct—players aren't afraid of them. What's the real world equivalent of doing what Thornton did to Orpik on a public sidewalk? Thirty hours of community service? Shanahan should've thrown the book at Thornton, and that book should've contained a note that read, "You are suspended without pay for the rest of this season. Good luck on your appeal but this is my decision."
This is barely even a punishment for the Bruins, who will be without a fourth-line forward that plays eight minutes per game, fewest on the team. The Bruins are 4-0 since losing Thornton, including a comeback 3-2 win against the Penguins that night. Something tells me the Bruins will be just fine without their enforcer for an additional 12 games.
So really, this suspension doesn't serve as a deterrent to prevent players from doing what Thornton did, and it doesn't make the Bruins worse in any way. Meanwhile, the Penguins are without their best defensive defenseman for an unknown period of time, and they have allowed 72 shots in two games without him.
Maybe there were mitigating factors in the suspension.
Maybe Thornton stepping in front of the sycophantic Boston media and offering up a couple of apologies before having the interview cut short by Bruins PR helped his case. It probably made all of the headaches Orpik has suffered since that night feel like his temples are being massaged by angels.
Maybe Thornton was given some leeway because after slew-footing Orpik, he bounced his defenseless head off the ice while wearing gloves. Thrornton didn't deliver bare-knuckle shots, instead administering blows while wearing his gloves. And as we all know, hockey gloves aren't extremely hard and designed to protect hands from pucks and slashes. Oh no, they are made of 88 percent marshmallows and 12 percent down feathers, so really, Thornton was just tickling Orpik's head and got unlucky.
This type of act wouldn't fly in any other sports league. Heck, this probably wouldn't even be tolerated if it happened after the bell in a mixed martial arts competition. But this is the NHL, where the rules of the rest of the world or even other sports leagues don't apply.
The NHL is the Lord of the Flies, Shanahan has the conch, and he just let an opportunity to bring order to the island slip away.
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