WILMINGTON — There were just 90 minutes left until his decision had to be finalized, and Shawn Thornton’s teammates were taking the ice at Ristuccia Arena. He needed to choose.
With time ticking down to the noon deadline on Tuesday, Thornton made the call, hitting the ice a few minutes after his teammates. After a mostly sleepless night spent weighing the possibilities, the rights and wrongs, the Bruins enforcer opted not to pursue a second appeal on his 15-game suspension handed down by Department of Player Safety chief Brendan Shanahan Dec. 14.
As Thornton said Tuesday morning, “I’m not going to lie to you, it wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve been thinking about it for the last 36 hours, not much sleep. But I feel for the team it’s probably the right thing to do at this point, not going through the whole process again for a third time.”
Thornton had seven days since Gary Bettman upheld the suspension to decide whether he wanted to go to an independent arbitrator for an incident Dec. 7 against the Penguins. In that game, Thornton slew-footed Brooks Orpik and punched him twice, leaving him concussed. Earlier in the game, Orpik hit Loui Eriksson, leaving Eriksson with his second concussion in 45 days.
“I’m still not happy with the amount of games I got,” Thornton added. “I know I’m not a victim, but I’m not happy with the amount of games I got. But I respect the decision. Like I said, I’d rather just move on mentally and just focus on getting ready for the [Jan. 11] instead of focusing on getting ready for another hearing.”
Factoring into his decision were both the limited time left to get to the arbitrator — Tuesday night’s game was already the 11th Thornton has missed — as well as the potential for being a distraction to his teammates.
Orpik returned last Friday night, playing 20 minutes and 38 seconds in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 overtime victory at Carolina. Orpik has played in the past three games, averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time.
Thornton said because of the timing, it might have been too late to save any of the 15 games on his suspension. He believed the earliest he could get in to see the arbitrator was Saturday or Sunday. Saturday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets is Thornton’s 13th game of the suspension.
“You respect that,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “It’s his decision and you have to respect it. I think at the end of the day I don’t know what his thoughts are, but when it’s all said and done, it’s just a matter of going on. For me, I think it might not be a bad thing for him to just focus on his return vs. the process of going through it.”
Thornton has been skating with the team since it returned from a trip across Canada on Dec. 16. He has traveled with the team as he has gone through the hearings and appeals process thus far, both of which now have come to an end.
The enforcer said he doesn’t believe the experience will change the way he plays. As he put it, “It won’t affect the way I do my job. My job is still to protect my teammates. My job is still to play productive minutes when I’m out there. Play hard. Play the game within the lines. And that’s what I’ll try and continue to do, even though I stepped outside of it once.”
Despite the act — for which Thornton has appeared contrite — many around the game have offered words of support, both privately and publicly. That includes Orpik, who said, “I think he knew he made a mistake and regretted it right away.” The pair have talked since the incident, which Thornton said helped him get through the aftermath.
Not only have his teammates voiced their support, but Thornton said he received text messages and phone calls from players around the league.
“There was a lot of guys not just in this locker room — especially in this locker room, my teammates have always supported me — but there was a lot of guys throughout the league that reached out to me that I didn’t know had my number,” Thornton said, listing bad boy Raffi Torres, who has a long suspension history, including 25 games for a postseason hit on Marian Hossa, as well as Paul Bissonette, Jay Rosehill, and Adam Burish. “A lot of kind texts, a lot of phone calls that were very, very appreciated.”
With the decision made and the situation mostly behind him, Thornton faces a return to the ice, with a reputation that could have been severely damaged.
Asked about that reputation, Thornton said, “I’m not going to let this define me. I think I obviously made a mistake. One mistake, I think, doing the job that I’ve done for 600-something games, including playoffs. It’s a tough question to answer because I know I made a mistake, but this won’t define me. I’m going to move on and continue to play and put this in the past.”