SAN JOSE, Calif. — The game has always slowed for Shawn Thornton in the moments before a fight. The moments when he’s circling another player, eyeing him to determine exactly when the gloves should come off. That slow-motion effect has generally been the clue for a great athlete — when the pitch comes in, as the football nears the fingers, as the goal mouth yawns open wide.
Thornton asked teammate Jarome Iginla, who has scored 543 career goals, about it recently. Iginla said when he crosses the blue line, everything settles. Iginla sees the goalie, the way he’s leaning. He sees the space, and the possibilities.
“I don’t see that [stuff],” Thornton said this week in his first extended interview since he was hit with a 15-game suspension for pummeling Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik Dec. 7. “The fighting, ever since I was a kid, has always kind of slowed down. I’ve never really had to work on that stuff. It’s been the game that I’ve had to work on. I don’t fight with emotion. I’m usually in control. It’s not emotional. I try and be fairly tactical when it happens.”
He is asked if it slowed down, too, during the Orpik incident. He demurs, careful with his answers because of the legalities of the situation. But he makes this much clear, “It was an emotional game, but I wasn’t out of control when I was doing what I was doing.”
Thornton reacted to one of his teammates going down, and then another, his bench pointing and urging him down the ice. He took three quick strides toward a scrum that developed in a game already wildly out of control.
He was in control as he skated toward the group, as he grabbed Orpik’s collar from behind and brought him down, as he hit him twice in the face with his gloved hand while Orpik lay on his back, leaving the defenseman unconscious.
“The outcome, as much as I didn’t want to see that outcome, it also could have been a lot worse,” said Thornton, who returns Saturday night when the Bruins play the Sharks. “I could have kept swinging. I could have — if I’d snapped — I could have probably done a lot of damage.”
. . .
The fighting started in the schoolyard in Oshawa, Ontario, and yielded a chance for a kid who would otherwise have worked at a plant or, if he got lucky, been a cop. He showed up in Peterborough, Ontario, as an 18-year-old, and the tough guy on the team was pointed out.
“If you want his job, you have to go fight him,” Thornton said he was told. “So we punched each other in the face for a minute and a half, both went off bleeding. I got the job.”
That was, ultimately, how Thornton ended up at TD Garden Dec. 7, why it was up to him to confront Orpik, who earlier in the game hit Loui Eriksson, causing a concussion, on a play where Eriksson wasn’t in possession of the puck.
“Two of my players had been knocked out in the first 10 minutes,” Thornton said, referring to Eriksson and Brad Marchand, who took a knee to the head by James Neal. “It’s my job to defend that. I was trying to defend it without” — he paused — “This is where it gets tricky because I know the optics of it look like I was trying to absolutely murder somebody, but in my head I wasn’t.
“I didn’t snap. I wasn’t out of control. I kept my glove on for a reason. I pulled him down. I didn’t let his head hit the ice. Which probably, again, doesn’t make much sense if you’re going to throw two punches at somebody. But I didn’t.”
Still, that’s part of what the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman took issue with in his ruling on Thornton’s appeal, writing, “Interestingly [and disturbingly], Mr. Thornton testified at the hearing that he knew exactly what he was doing and that he was in complete control of his emotions.”
Thornton believed he was thinking it through, calculating how to address a situation that needed to be addressed. It’s what he had done at least 230 times in the AHL and NHL since 2000, according to hockeyfights.com, and many more times before that.
“The intent was not to injure Brooksie at all,” he said. “It was more to send a message, to do my job. We can’t be pushed around. I crossed the line. I know I did. I shouldn’t have hit somebody when he was down. I messed up there. I paid dearly for it.
“I’ve said it 100 times: There’s guys in this league I can’t stand I’ve never tried to injure. That’s not the type of guy I am.”
Thornton earned a 15-game ban, the longest given out in the regular season by NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan, and lost nearly $85,000 in salary.
It was also what has made his name — at least at the moment — the most controversial in hockey, obscuring his 11 seasons without a suspension or fine. He hopes it won’t always be that way, that he won’t be the next in a line that includes Todd Bertuzzi, Raffi Torres, Matt Cooke, those forever labeled as dirty players.
He knows that’s a possibility. He still can’t sleep sometimes, thinking about it.
. . .
Thornton didn’t watch the video in the week following the incident, when he was holed up at home with his wife and his dogs, doing his best not to see anyone, not to talk about it. He spent an hour a day shooting pucks at an empty net with assistant general manager Don Sweeney.
In fact, he had to be forced to watch it.
It was 45 minutes before his first hearing, on Dec. 13, when his agent made him. The NHLPA needed him to go through it, to go over what was going through his head.
Thornton said it was “not good. I didn’t want to see it. I still don’t want to see it.”
He points out that, unlike Bertuzzi and Cooke, he didn’t end or help end a fellow player’s career, as Bertuzzi did with Steven Moore in 2004 and Cooke — unpenalized — did with Marc Savard in 2010. Orpik, who suffered a concussion, was back on the ice before the ruling came down from the league seven days after the incident, and returned to games on Dec. 27, having missed eight games.
“I felt like I was in control,” he said. “I felt like the punches I was throwing weren’t going to injure anybody . . . I know that the optics of it, the majority of people out there, the role I fill probably leads people to think otherwise. I get that.”
When he got in the locker room, after being given a match penalty, he saw the stretcher come out for Orpik. He was surprised. He felt sick. He texted Orpik.
“I [screwed] up,” he said. “I’m aware of it. Brooksie accepted my apology. I did my time. I felt like I’ve paid handsomely for it. I’ve put myself through the ringer mentally too, now it’s time to put it behind me.”
. . .
Fighting is why Thornton is in the NHL. It’s not the only thing he can do — he’s not John Scott — but it is the reason for the 611 regular- and postseason games he has played. It’s the reason he’s earned millions of dollars.
The incident with Orpik was not a fight. It was one-sided, unfair. It was not what Thornton does for a living.
In the days following the incident, a Thornton quote made the rounds. As he said to ESPN about hockey’s code, “People could probably criticize that I’m a little too honorable, I suppose, in some instances. I’ve been a firm believer my whole life that what goes around comes around. If you’re one of those guys that suckers someone when they’re down or you go after somebody that doesn’t deserve it or isn’t in the same category as you, that will come back and bite you at some point, too.”
It didn’t read well, not in the light of what had happened.
“I think it’d be hypocritical if I was saying that there was nothing wrong with that, what I did,” he says now. “And that I still live by it and all that stuff. Honestly, I know I messed up. I apologized for it. I still apologize for it.
“I’d like to move past it. I’ll never forget it. But I’ll like to put it in my past as quickly as possible.”
After 11 seasons in the NHL, and years of hockey before then, Thornton believed he had found the magic spot, a feel for what was acceptable, and when. He took pride in it, defined himself by it. It, like the code, was who he was.
As he said, “It’s not easy to ride [the line]. I rode it for a long time without crossing it. Where is it? I don’t think I should have hit him when he was down.
“So it’s more about feeling it out. Trying to play right on it. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy. I guess it comes down to the dirty stuff shouldn’t be involved and the clean face-to-face stuff allowed at the end of the day.”
But, he was asked, doesn’t that get blurry?
“Some days,” he said, “it is.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.