Thornton pays the price for bad judgment

December, 14, 2013
12/14/13
6:17
PM ET


Since the moment Bruins forward Shawn Thornton attacked and injured Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik on Dec. 7, the incident has been the center of discussions as the NHL's department of player safety waited until Saturday afternoon to announce Thornton's 15-game suspension.

Thornton had his in-person disciplinary hearing Friday afternoon at the league office in New York.

Top NHL cop Brendan Shanahan had a lot to consider in this situation. The incident itself deserved such a punishment. Yes, Thornton is a first-time offender, but his actions took place during a stoppage in play. He skated a long way to get to Orpik too.

"This cannot be described as a hockey play that went bad," Shanahan said in his video. "Nor do we consider this a spontaneous reaction to an incident that just occurred. Rather, it is our view that this was an act of retribution for an incident that occurred earlier in the game. The result of this action by Thornton was a serious injury to Orpik."

The incident occurred at 11:06 of the first period during Boston's 3-2 win over Pittsburgh last Saturday at TD Garden. After the game, Thornton stood at his locker and took full responsibility for his actions. He showed genuine remorse and was nearly in tears.

Yes, he's an enforcer. But he's much more than that.

Thornton is a true pro, a winner of two Stanley Cups and nearly a third last spring before the Bruins fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals. He normally averages 10 to 12 minutes of ice time per game, playing alongside Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell on Boston's energy line, which is one of the best and most consistent fourth lines in the league.

What Thornton did was wrong, and he's paying the price -- literally.

But Thornton isn't the only player to blame in this situation.

His job is to protect his teammates. So when he saw Orpik lay out and concuss Bruins forward Loui Eriksson with a shoulder hit to the head, followed by seeing Pittsburgh's James Neal knee Brad Marchand in the head, Thornton reacted.

Whether or not you believe fighting should be banned, it's part of the game. This incident could have been avoided had Orpik dropped the gloves with Thornton the first time.

Case in point: After the Bruins' Milan Lucic ran over Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller on Nov. 12, 2011, and Miller suffered a concussion, 11 days later the two teams met again in Buffalo. Only a minute into that game, Lucic dropped the gloves with the Sabres' Paul Gaustad. That was it.

At the time, Lucic still believed it was only a collision with Miller, but the Bruins forward added: "When you do something like that, you always prepare to step up and fight for yourself."

That's just one example of how this game polices itself.

Back to the Thornton incident. He was trying to do right by Eriksson, who was on the receiving end of a massive check from Orpik. Eriksson suffered his second concussion in a five-week span and landed on injured reserve.

Thornton tried to persuade Orpik to drop the gloves on the ensuing shift, but the Penguins defenseman wouldn't oblige.

Later in the period, when Neal intentionally kneed Marchand in the head, Thornton lost his composure. During a stoppage in play, he attacked Orpik, slew-footing him to the ice and punching him twice in the head.

Orpik was taken off the ice on a stretcher, transported to Massachusetts General Hospital and diagnosed with a concussion. He was recently placed on IR and Friday was able to begin some light on-ice exercise, the team announced on Twitter. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said Orpik is still experiencing concussion symptoms.

Thornton broke his own rules, broke the code, for the first time in his NHL career. He prides himself on respecting the game and his opponents -- no matter the situation. A 15-game suspension with time already served (four games) is a long time. His teammates will miss his presence in the lineup.

When he returns, Thornton won't change his style of play. He'll continue to stick up for his teammates, but you can be sure he won't make the same mistake again.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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