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League needed to act faster on suspension

12/14/2013

We get that Sheriff Brendan Shanahan is a busy guy. He's traveling around the NHL spreading the gospel of player safety to teams across the continent, on top having to hand down supplementary discipline seemingly almost every night to a league that just doesn't seem to get it.

But when it comes to the league's most important announcement this season, the suspension of Boston winger Shawn Thornton, the NHL behaves as though it's afraid of its own shadow or, worse, afraid of its own decision.

Because this is one it got right, with Thornton reportedly banned for a whopping 15 games for hunting down Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik a week ago, slew-footing him to the ice and then hitting the defenseless veteran defenseman a couple of times while he was down.

Orpik was removed from the ice in Boston on a stretcher and was put on injured reserve Monday although he returned to the ice late this week. No timetable has been given for his return to action.

In a season that has had its fair share of recklessness and serious or potentially serious injuries as a result of said recklessness, the ugliness of last week's Boston-Pittsburgh game brought the league's Wild West reputation into ugly focus on a number of levels.

The situation began with Orpik's thunderous hit on Loui Eriksson early in the game. Eriksson left after the hit near the Boston blue line. No penalty was called, and while there was lots of debate about the legality of the hit, all three components -- offensive player, defender and puck -- were in the same vicinity at the time of the hit.

The league reviewed the hit, and Orpik wasn't subjected to supplementary discipline.

Debate it all you want, but for the purposes of what unfolded, that was a legal hit.

Thornton, one of the league's toughest players and with a reputation as a stand-up guy who has nicely straddled the line between tough guy and thug for much of his career, crossed the line when Orpik refused to fight in the aftermath of the hit on Eriksson. At some point, Thornton should have filed the incident away as most tough guys do and waited for another day.

He didn't. Instead, he hunted Orpik down and engaged in an attack that in retrospect could have been far, far worse in terms of long-term injury. That said, no one knows when Orpik will be back and what impact this could have on his place on the U.S. Olympic team.

That the incident happened moments after Pittsburgh's James Neal kneed an unsuspecting Brad Marchand in the head while Marchand was on the ice put the kind of focus on the NHL it has long been trying to avoid, reinforcing that there is no code, no such thing as "respect," especially when it comes to issues like "justice" or, more to the point, "vengeance."

Neal was suspended early last week for five games, about the right amount for the senseless hit on Marchand, who did not miss time as a result of the hit.

But the Thornton case struck at the very heart of the NHL's reputation for not just allowing but encouraging vigilante justice on the ice. The heart of the fighting debate comes down to the notion that fighting keeps the game safer, that fighters help weed out the cheap-shot artists and stick men.

But what happens when the fighters are revealed to be no better than the so-called rats they're supposed to keep in line?

The specious argument that somehow Orpik got what he deserved because he didn't fight Thornton is another embarrassing element to an already embarrassing situation. Orpik didn't need to fight and shouldn't have had to fight after what the officials on the ice (and later the league) had ruled was a clean hit on Eriksson.

That wasn't enough for Thornton, though, so he exacted his own form of justice.

What it has cost Orpik, we don't yet know.

What it has cost Thornton is now more tangible. Fifteen games is a significant blow for Thornton, who seemed genuinely contrite in the aftermath of the game and whose absence is a blow to the Bruins. The blow to his reputation is likewise significant. He knows that, or he should. No matter what he says or does, moving forward this incident will stay with him like a shadow.

Although we've long been skeptical of the impact of suspensions on other players and what they might or might not do in the heat of battle, at least the league has made a strong statement on this specific case.

All of which adds to the befuddlement as to how the league chose to handle the delivery of the punishment.

Yes, it's been busy, as noted.

Shanahan had to deal with David Clarkson's hit on Vladimir Sobotka on Thursday night. Or did he?

Why not wait on Clarkson, given the importance of the Thornton case?

Thornton was suspended pending his hearing and the resolution of his case; why not do the same for Clarkson and announce Clarkson's two-game ban on Sunday? Or later Saturday?

Why was the league so content to wait into the seventh day after the Thornton event, until late Saturday afternoon, presumably after the Bruins had departed Rogers Arena in Vancouver after their morning skate, to make such an important announcement?

Even after the news broke via Darren Dreger of TSN, the NHL would not confirm the suspension for a couple of hours.

We understand that with the recent class-action lawsuit filed by a group of former players against the league over allegations the NHL withheld information about concussions, that everything the league does vis-a-vis player safety has to be viewed through a different legal prism. But surely that's no excuse for burying an important announcement as this one was.

Ask any PR intern when the best time to deliver bad news is and he or she will tell you late on Friday or on a weekend, when the media machine is at its most slumberous.

Ask the question a different way. Why wouldn't the league want to trumpet this decision?

Why not make sure it got the headlines it deserved, the attention it deserved, something to help mitigate the ugly images and discussion that flowed out of last Saturday's game.

Here is the league saying, "What Thornton did wasn't justice. This is justice."

And it would have been right.

Why wouldn't the league want everyone to hear that message?

Surely the league's not embarrassed by its own decisions. Surely the league believes this is the right call.

Because it absolutely was the right call and the right message to send.

Too bad it just looks like the NHL wasn't so sure after all.