Last night in Boston we saw the ugly side of hockey show its face again. By now you have probably heard about and seen the Shawn Thornton attack on Brooks Orpik midway through the first period of last night’s Penguins / Bruins game. A short series of events touched off this latest case of player on player violence; earlier in the period Orpik delivered a clean, but big, hit on Loui Erikkson. Erikkson was injured on the play and had to exit the game. While the refs had no issue with the play, Thornton tried to make Orpik answer for the hit, but Orpik declined to drop the gloves. A little later in the first, James Neal clipped a downed Brad Marchand in the head with his knee. Neal later claimed the incident was accidental, but there was no attempt to avoid the contact. As you can see in the video below, Thornton skates into the resulting scrum, pulls Orpik down, and punches him repeatedly while his head is on the ice. Orpik was knocked unconscious and had to be stretchered off. He was later released from the hospital, but is now dealing with a concussion. Neal will have a telephone hearing for his actions, while Thornton will have an in-person hearing and is suspended indefinitely.
I believe everyone (with the exception of the Bruins TV crew, who tried to justify Thornton’s actions as a response to the earlier Orpik hit, as well as Neal’s actions) can agree this is disgusting behavior and has no place in hockey. Unfortunately this incident will get play on all of the highlights shows and give non-hockey fans the wrong impression of the sport. With the NFL concussion lawsuit, the PBS documentary, and the recent NHL concussion lawsuit, head injuries are gaining the attention of sports fans and non-sports fans alike. An incident like this does not look good for an NHL that is trying to show it has its players under control.
The other fallout from this incident is it will only fuel the fire of the anti-fighting crowd. I am personally fine with fighting in hockey, as long as it is between consenting parties. Even though this was not a case of two players agreeing to drop the gloves in a fight (it was more along the lines of an assault), the fighting detractors will use this as an example to make their case. We see a player punching another player and immediately the calls to “end fighting in hockey” go out on Twitter. This was not a fight, this was assault. This was worse than the Ray Emery / Braden Holtby incident, at least there Holtby threw some punches in return and tried to defend himself. Here, Orpik didn’t even have a chance to react; his back was turned.
Thornton knows he screwed up. He surprisingly met with the media after and answered questions. He was apologetic and seemed genuinely concerned about Orpik’s condition. It’s too late; both for the near-term image of the NHL, as well as Orpik’s health.
Thornton lost his cool in an emotional game and did something terrible to another human being. If that were someone in a bar, he’d be spending the night in jail, but let’s not lose perspective and try to use this incident to promote personal agendas. The NHL Department of Player Safety will handle this accordingly. It appears Shawn Thornton will have a lot of time to consider his actions and make some changes in the way he plays the game.
The Bruins went on to win the game last night, 3-2, but everyone lost in my book; the NHL will have to deal with negative press, the Penguins are down two players (Neal will get discipline for the kneeing) and the Bruins look like thugs. Not a positive night for hockey fans.