In a failure to curb his pugilistic impulses, Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton effectively decided that one penalty and an opposing goal during that penalty was not punishment enough for hunting Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik last Saturday.
A full week has passed, and the NHL’s player safety office has determined that a 15-game suspension (official league release linked here) will suffice as penance for Thornton’s injurious persistence. That was the sentence that Brendan Shanahan announced Saturday afternoon.
On the one hand, protesters will point to the fact that Thornton is not a repeat offender, so this is too long of a suspension.
However, everything that led up to this incident outnumbers and outweighs anything that could factor in Thornton’s favor.
ESPN Boston reporter Joe McDonald may have made the most spot-on prediction when he tweeted Friday, “Thornton has never been suspended. Always handles his role perfectly. Despite not having a history, play was stopped which could factor in.”
Incidentally, the NHL’s official explanatory video touches upon every key point of the infraction with the exception of the after-the-whistle aspect. With that said, the final ruling means Shanahan might as well have factored it in.
The case for the freshly dealt suspension is backed by such factors as Thornton’s persistent pursuit of his victim and the fact that it culminated in a blindsided, post-whistle slew foot and sucker punch.
Depending on one’s vantage point, that's anywhere from two to five condemning bullet points. It is a much different animal than a borderline or even plainly illegal check while the clock is running.
For virtually the entire sequence of the first 11 minutes and six seconds of the game in question, Thornton was plainly adamant about retaining a hot head. He was brimming with emotion and did not bother to neutralize his desire to dish it out on a specific opponent for a specific incident earlier in the evening.
The sequence began with Orpik’s opening-shift hit that re-concussed Bruins forward Loui Eriksson. It ended with a needless stab at vengeance, and not the first one the Boston enforcer pursued that night.
In the latter instance, a crowd converged following a stoppage of play as Pittsburgh’s James Neal incurred a kneeing penalty (and subsequent suspension). Thornton rushed to the scene, tugged Orpik from the left side and dealt a pair of punches while pushing him down to the ice.
Orpik’s resultant concussion, to say nothing of the mass assistance he needed in exiting the ice, underscored how much force Thornton threw into those punches. Whether or not the perpetrator realized how much angry energy he was investing in that attack ought to be irrelevant in a disciplinary decision.
Likewise, the preceding Eriksson incident should not―and presumably did not―factor into the justice Thornton faces. Any player who watches his teammate take a questionable check should not depend on a penalty to propitiate his frustration.
If anything, the NHL’s ruling should let all hockey players of all levels know that the reactionary attack and everything that precipitated it constitutes loyalty to a fault at its worst.
That lesson should especially go for the likes of Cam Janssen, who this past week gave the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette an interview, during which he transitioned into excuse mode by remarking that, “Thornton was definitely riled up.”
Ditto Senators scrapper Matt Kassian, whom the Ottawa Sun quoted as saying, “We say we want to talk about policing the game, and that’s what he’s doing. You wonder if next time Orpik thinks twice about making that hit.”
Here is an alternative to that philosophy: Thornton’s suspension should make one wonder if NHL players think twice about jumping an opponent.
The toe-curling irony is that Thornton could have thought twice about stepping outside the boundaries of the rules to avenge the Eriksson hit. After all, his first swing at that not only failed, it induced an initial deficit on the scoreboard against his team.
In between the two injurious occurrences, Thornton forfeited any benefit of the doubt by attempting to initiate a fight with Orpik at the end of his first shift. Because Orpik was clearly a non-consenting combatant, Thornton incurred a roughing minor at the 5:44 mark.
That sentence met an early release at 6:33 when Chris Kunitz inserted a power-play conversion to spot Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.
Logically, that turn of events should have instilled an understanding that extracurricular behavior was the wrong way to settle the score. Yet it either swelled Thornton’s frustration or, if nothing else, failed to curtail it.
Thornton’s second shift occurred in the ninth minute, all while Orpik was refueling on the bench. In turn, it was fairly uneventful.
But his third shift proved to be his final twirl for the night. He crossed paths with Orpik and immediately discarded his emotional restraint, if he had it to begin with.
Rarely is a smaller sample size more telling than a larger one, but this would be one of those exceptions. The pattern could not be any clearer, and neither could the videotape.
Thornton hopped over the boards only three times in Saturday’s contest, twice overlapping with Orpik and twice going after Orpik. That cements the operative word of “premeditated” to describe Thornton’s tussle with Orpik, regardless of any discrepancy between intent and result.
Say what you will about Neal’s egregious infraction on Brad Marchand that immediately preceded the scuffle in the other zone. That certainly did nothing to keep any heads cool, but it also had no bearing on a specific personal grudge that had been searing for almost 11 minutes of action time.
The Neal-Marchand incident occurred in Boston territory. At the time, Thornton was barely north of the Bruins blue line, trying to corral a loose puck.
When the whistle blew and a separate skirmish began to stir on Pittsburgh property, Thornton darted across the neutral zone. What he did upon arrival confirmed the notion that he was specifically bent on avenging the Orpik-Eriksson hit from the opening minute of action.
The skirmish in question had Bruins forward Gregory Campbell stirring a round of shoves with the Pittsburgh defensive duo of Kris Letang and Orpik.
There is no way to hide the fact that Thornton still wanted Orpik and saw his chance in that equation. The fact that he jumped to this action long after the whistle blew escalates the egregiousness.
One cannot credibly attribute any percentage (well, except zero) of Orpik’s injury to incidental impact. Thornton and his long-running buildup of excess intensity acted alone here, and the resulting scene was nothing short of frightful, even if Orpik was able to skate again this past Friday.
The only way to prevent that scene from emerging again, especially with worse long-term results, is to make a stern example of the responsible party. Whether he does so in or out of character, no NHLer should ever pursue payback in this fashion.