Last night's Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins game almost ceased to matter at the 11:06 mark in the first period. That's not being over-dramatic, that's how scary the scene was after Shawn Thornton's attack on Brooks Orpik. The all-time leader in defenseman games played for the Pens was carted off the ice via stretcher and taken to a Boston area hospital (he was released and went home with his teammates later that night). Shawn Thornton, a career enforcer, was booted from the game after he slew-footed Orpik to the ground and beamed him twice, resulting in Orpik losing consciousness.
Make no mistake, however, there are no victims here. Not even Orpik, although he got the short end of the stick.
The game started with brutality when Orpik laid out Boston forward Loui Eriksson with a questionable hit. Orpik left his feet and dove which is a hit the NHL wants to get out of the game. Eriksson's head was down too. While the old cliche of 'never skate with your head down' will absolve him with most hockey fans, the league sees it differently. So did Shawn Thornton, who tried to fight Orpik after the play to no avail. Eriksson did not return.
Then James Neal made everyone wearing yellow and black see red. Boston's Brad Marchand was knocked down and while he was getting up, Nealer kneed him in the head. It was dirty play. It was a goon move. It was the straw that broke the camel's back for Thornton. During the stoppage, he went after the guy who started all this dirtiness. He went after Brooks Orpik by assaulting him from behind and landing two rabbit punches. Did the rest of the game matter at that point?
Sidney Crosby said, "Pretty quiet [on the bench]. Like I said, it's hard to focus on hockey when you see a teammate and a friend just lying there, and he's motionless. You don't know what's wrong with him. We hear he's doing OK, but it's definitely kind of a different scenario when you're sitting there and it's quiet. The whole building was pretty quiet. I think they realized it was pretty vicious."
Shawn Thornton offered this after the game, "Listen I feel awful. It wasn't my intention for that outcome. I know Brooksie. I've gotten to know him over the last several years here. I skate with him in the summer through the lockout. I texted him a couple times. I feel awful. It definitely was not I wanted to see or anybody wanted to see."
Whether or not that's sincere, it will not score him any lineage with Brendan Shanahan and the Department of Player Safety. Despite never serving a suspension before, Thornton got the most out of his first offense and will likely not be seeing NHL ice for a while. Same with James Neal, who has a phone call from the NHL coming Monday.
Neal said, "I mean, what do you want me to say? That I was trying to hit him? No, I'm going by him, I don't get out of the way, like I said. I need to be more careful and I guess get my knee out of the way, but I'm not trying to hit him in the head or injure him or anything like that."
The NHL wants fighting out of game. There is no argument about that. They started getting real serious about it the second Colton Orr dragged George Parros's face to ice opening night. Fighting isolates hockey from the other major North American sports with the entirely bad press it engenders from incidents like this. ESPN will not talk about how good the Sharks are playing or whether there is a true goalie battle in New York, but they will discuss this and not in a positive light.
Gary Bettman faces a near unwinnable war here. The fans love fighting. The players think fighting is a important part of the game. Too eliminate fighting, Bettman will need to change a culture that allows guys like Shawn Thornton to have a job. Ask Roger Goodell about changing a sport's culture. It's not fun. But something needs to change. Fines and suspensions are Band-aids. What happened to Brooks will happen again unless rules are put in place to stop it. Bettman is used to being the bad guy, and banning fighting will turn him into a supervillain in most fans' eyes, but players ten years from now will thank him for it.
Do the right thing, Mr. Bettman. And do it now.
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