There comes a time when every man has to answer for his actions. That time was Saturday for likable Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton, who committed a detestable takedown and beatdown of Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik that left Orpik unconscious on the TD Garden ice last Saturday.
The amiable Thornton was hit with a 15-game suspension by NHL senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan for his actions, which were in response to Orpik leveling a concussion-causing check on Bruins forward Loui Eriksson just 21 seconds into the game, plus a cheap-shot knee to the head of Brad Marchand by Penguins forward James Neal. The Neal play came seconds before Thornton tenderized Orpik and sent him off the Garden ice on a stretcher.
This is also the time for the NHL to answer for its inaction and the fighting culture it tacitly condones, even while punishing men like Thornton who represent it and perpetuate it. There is hypocrisy in the NHL’s house. The Thornton situation happened because the NHL sanctions fighting.
Thornton has to take responsibility for his behavior, which if it had happened anywhere else on Causeway Street would have constituted assault. But he is a product of the culture in which he plays.
The NHL has to ask if the putative self-policing of the game by players like Thornton is effective or permissible in this age of concussion awareness.
As a pucks pugilist, Thornton was trying to do his job — what he believes keeps his job — by engaging Orpik to fight after the Eriksson hit. After Orpik declined, a frustrated Thornton eventually took matters into his own hands.
The Bruins winger has expressed repeated remorse for his actions. He, and he alone, has to own his mistake, as former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein would say.
Belying his tough-guy image and job description, Thornton is one of the more affable and approachable athletes on the Boston sports scene. He is actively involved in the community and has his own charitable foundation dedicated to combating Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
He’s the guy with whom you want to have a cold beverage or play 18 holes.
So, it’s hard to reconcile Thornton’s reputation with his brutish behavior against Orpik. Thornton’s suspension may have been worse if Orpik had not been able to return to skating with his team on Friday.
But Thornton’s role on the Bruins is clear — to provide protection and mete out retribution in the name of the Spoked-B. It is a role filled by players across the NHL, who serve up frozen frontier justice. Thornton is one of the best in the NHL at playing the heavy with honor, and as a bonus, he can play a little hockey, too.
But if the most honorable among the brawlers can’t stop from crossing the line, their place in the game has to be re-evaluated.
Hockey is the only one of the so-called Big Four sports where fighting is sanctioned and does not result in immediate disqualification from the contest. Violence and vulcanized rubber go together like champagne and New Year’s Eve.
Fighting exists in hockey for entertainment purposes and tradition.
Those who advocate for fighting, who believe it is an essential part of the bedrock of the NHL and would rather remove their incisors with pliers than take dropping the gloves out of the game, claim that fighting prevents more hits than it inflicts.
Removing fighting would turn the ice into a place of post-apocalyptic anarchy, they bellow.
That is a myth, disproved time and time again by opportunistic cheap-shot artists with names like Samuelsson, Cooke, and Torres.
Did Thornton’s presence prevent Max Pacioretty from banging Johnny Boychuk into the boards in Montreal? Did it stop Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf from ramming Kevan Miller into the boards with a forearm to the back of the head? When Orpik finished his check on Eriksson, who had dropped his head to follow an odd bounce of the puck, was he thinking he better let up because he didn’t want to drop the gloves?
The answer to all of the above is no.
So, what you’re left with is the maxim that violence begets more violence. That was true in the case of the Penguins and Bruins last Saturday.
Instead of having only Eriksson concussed on Orpik’s legal, yet predatory, hit, you ended up with two players getting concussed in the name of vengeance.
Now, instead of just being without Eriksson, placed on injured reserve Tuesday, the Bruins will be without Thornton’s grit, guile, and leadership as well.
Call Orpik, who played at Thayer Academy and won a national championship at Boston College, craven for not duking it out with Thornton. But why should he take a fight he can’t win for an unpenalized hit?
Orpik stands 6 feet 2 inches and weighs 219 pounds, but he’s not a fighter. According to hockeyfights.com, Orpik hasn’t engaged in an NHL fight since Sept. 22, 2010.
If the NHL’s true interest is player safety, doubling the concussion count in the name of entrenched tradition isn’t acceptable. I wouldn’t miss the John Scotts of the hockey world one iota.
Bruins beat writer Amalie Benjamin had an excellent and enlightening piece in the Globe earlier this week on how the NHL’s Department of Player Safety operates. It’s a must-read.
In that piece, NHL director of media relations John Dellapina said, “One of the mandates of the Department of Player Safety is to change behavior, not just punish bad acts.”
Punishing Thornton isn’t going to change the culture of the NHL and its resident pugilists.
The only way to do that is to stop the punches before they start.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.