Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Paul on 12/10/13 at 10:51 AM ET
By Tom Murray,
It was a cheap and dirty act, intentional and irresponsible. And the result could have been far worse than it turned out to be.
No. Not Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik last Saturday night. More on that in a bit.
This happened just a few moments earlier in the first period of that game in Boston between the Bruins and Penguins. After being tripped up by Sidney Crosby, Bruins forward Brad Marchand was on all fours, scrambling to get back into the play when the left knee of Penguins forward James Neal connected with Marchand’s head, knocking him back to the ice and spinning him around 180 degrees. Replays clearly show Neal moving to his left, away from a clear skating path, and then heading right for Marchand, flexing his left knee into Marchand’s head as he skates by him.
“It’s the dirtiest thing I might have seen this year,” said CBC’s P.J. Stock, “and that’s what you have to get out of the game.”
Couldn’t agree more. Your thoughts, Mr. Neal?
“I haven’t seen the replay of anything,” he said after the game. “I hit him in the head with my leg or my knee or my shin. He’s already going down. I guess I need to try to avoid him.”
(Is it just me, or does the blithely oblivious Neal sound a lot like Woody Allen’s character in Play It Again Sam, trying to impress a woman with his performance in a fight: “I snapped my chin down onto some guy’s fist and hit another one on the knee with my nose.”)
“What do you want me to say?” Neal added, “I was trying to hit him?”
You didn’t have to, James. It was pretty obvious.
Obvious to everyone that is except the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, which very quickly snapped into action, announcing that Neal would only have a phone hearing for the incident, which meant the most severe punishment he’d receive was a maximum of five games, which he ended up getting on Monday afternoon.
A player who’s been suspended twice before goes out of his way to knee an opponent in the head and the league goes out of its way to make it perfectly clear there won’t be any serious price to pay. In the topsy-turvy world of crime and punishment in the NHL, just another ho-hum day at the office.
Which brings us to the case of Thornton, who plays the game in a way that’s easy to love, with energy, passion and devotion to his teammates. It should also be pointed out that Thornton was responding to a hit by Orpik on his teammate Loui Eriksson, who had already missed significant time earlier in the season after an illegal elbow from Buffalo’s John Scott resulted in a concussion.
And now here was Orpik catching Eriksson with a hard and high hit. That’s his game. (As is whining about virtually every penalty he’s ever been called for.)The puck was nowhere to be found and at minimum a penalty for interference should have been called. None was. Eriksson left the game with what was later determined to be another concussion. Thornton was incensed. Revenge was on his mind.
But what he did was despicable. It was a brazen assault, starting with the slew foot maneuver that knocked Orpik to the ice, and ending with Thornton delivering several blows as Orpik lay flat on his back, defenseless and seemingly unconscious.
It was in this space just last week that Ken Dryden discussed what he calls the “cringe factor.”
In every game, he explained, “there will be a couple of plays where somebody just takes a run at somebody.....and it is there but for the grace of God you have a broken neck or you don’t. Almost every time you don’t but it’s a who knows kind of thing.”
We had two cringe moments in that game on Saturday night, two separate incidents on the same shift that could have ended so much worse. But they didn’t. Brad Marchand returned to the game soon after being kneed in the head. And after he was removed from the ice on a stretcher and then transported to Massachusetts General Hospital in an ambulance, Orpik recovered quickly enough to join his teammates on their return flight to Pittsburgh.
Two lethal hockey bullets, mercifully dodged. For now. And that explains in large part why Neal was the beneficiary of a phone hearing and why he earned yet another toothless suspension from the NHL for his gutless behavior. And it also explains why Thornton likely won’t get anywhere near the lengthy suspension his actions absolutely merit.
But that’s precisely what’s so wrong about all of this: The league should be lowering the boom on offenders regardless of what happens to their victims. Because it is these brazen and potentially deadly acts that not only perpetuate the embarrassing beer league optics, but also send the absolutely wrong message that the NHL really isn’t that interested in stopping this nonsense.
As for that cringe factor Ken Dryden talks about?
We should all be cringing as we wonder what has to happen before any of this changes.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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