Brooks Orpik

The Bruins and Penguins weren’t 30 seconds into their game on Saturday night when the first domino fell: Brooks Orpik stepped up on Loui Eriksson who was vulnerable and sans-puck, and gave him his second concussion of the season with a thundering bodycheck. As it goes in hockey, the Bruins were displeased with this.

Whether you thought the hit was clean or not – I personally saw a player who was locked in on throwing a tone-setting hit at the start of the game, a pass that caromed at an angle neither player predicted, an unsafe snap decision to follow-through on a check to avoid getting burned (with a splash of “f*** it I’ve come this far“), and an unfortunate result – the Bruins were going to go after Orpik. A talented teammate was injured on a sorta-borderline play in Boston, and the Penguins are a team the Bruins need to give a damn about going forward. They’ll likely see each other in the post-season, so hello Punk Test, hello war zone.

The dominoes continued to fall. James Neal’s knee to Brad Marchand’s head was inexcusably dirty, so he’ll sit out the next five games (and forfeit $128,205.15) as a result. It’s pretty easy to see Neal’s thought process unfold on his “oops sorry” play – I’m guessing there’s a 10% chance he does that if it’s anyone bigger/tougher/less-ratty than Marchand on the ice. I believe hockey players of a slightly older generation would refer to Neal’s play as “chicken s**t,” and they wouldn’t be wrong.

Later came Shawn Thornton on Brooks Orpik, followed by Brooks Orpik on a stretcher. “Chicken s**t” might not work as well here given the events that led up to the bad moment (Thornton trying to square up and fight Orpik), but the word “inexcusable” does apply to both incidents. There’s obviously no justification for a mini slewfoot and two sucker-punches (sucker-forearms?) on an opponent. Thornton should and will get suspended for his garbage play, and hopefully his victim makes a quick recovery. (As for “should Orpik have fought him?” Well, that’s his call. He knows he’s gonna get chased around until he does, so maybe he was just hoping to draw some penalties in the process. Maybe he simply didn’t want to – after all, he doesn’t have to, though it certainly would’ve at least quelled the Bruins thirst for blood.) I’m guessing Thornton’s suspension is somewhere in the 8-13 game range, as a player without much of a suspension history.

And finally, Pascal Dupuis gave Chris Kelly a solid whack, for which he received one in return. The chop broke Kelly’s ankle though (I say casually, like someone breaking a bone in your leg with a stick is a shrug-off), while the one he received did nothing. Kelly’s now been placed on long-term IR, and while I don’t think Dupuis meant to do that kind of damage, it’s the risk you run when you swing your stick at people.

So…phew. That was a lot of BS for one game, and it’s been a lot of BS since, whether you’re reading about it, writing about it or watching it on TV.

The most comical part of the aftermath is the hunt for the good and bad guys, like there are black and white hats we have to get handed out, like one team is morally superior to another. Beat it with that concept. All there is to hand out is judgement; hockey doesn’t have white hats. I was never on a team that didn’t try to exact some sort of revenge when a player on our team got cheaped out, and I’ve never been on a team that was always told to turn the other cheek in the face of wrongdoing. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” is cute, but the team that gets rolled over physically gets rolled over on the scoreboard the majority of the time, so it’s easy to see why nobody wants to play the punk. The game really does require a measure of toughness to thrive, a fact that won’t be denied by anyone from within the game today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

So, my overall thoughts on the big picture here: observers of the game are best to avoid painting a player as a villain until he builds a track record, I don’t love suspensions being dictated by injuries, and the best we can do with the game of hockey is minimize the reckless actions.

One at a time, now.

A player isn’t a bad person until he builds a track record

I saw a lot of, this, particularly with the Shawn Thornton-on-Brooks Orpik incident: he may not have had a track record of hurting people, but he did on Saturday, so now he’s a bad person.

Dial it back.

Funny and all from our friend Ryan Lambert, but obviously Officer Shanahan and the NHL aren’t okay with Thornton’s actions, and he’ll be punished for them. But the direction of that tweet and the piece he wrote imply that Thornton’s now a bad guy.

Being that Thornton doesn’t have a track record, I’m okay with allowing some benefit of the doubt before you toss him on Team Kaleta.

Now, don’t read that as me excusing Thornton for his premeditated violence on Orpik just because he hasn’t been suspended before. He put someone else in danger, it went badly, and he’ll pay. But it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge that if Orpik pops up from that scrum, Thornton gets two minutes for roughing (maybe even a double minor?) and that’s the last we hear of it other than “Pens/Bruins played a spirited affair where tensions got a little high.”

Stepping away from Thornton for a sec, I mean this in the big picture: there are myriad plays in hockey where something acceptable you often do goes wrong and you’re as surprised as the guy on the wrong end of it. Specifically I’m thinking about hitting from behind. Defensemen do it constantly, and the majority of the time players are braced for it, they fend off the d-man, and they go on their way. Here’s a totally random, poorly filmed example I took from TV – Doughty smokes Stafford in the numbers a few times, and it’s no big deal. I’m not mad at Doughty at all here, he’s playing good D.

One time a guy might not be as set, and suddenly his neck is getting folded into the boards and the hitter is getting suspended. Do I think that suspended player is now a cheapshot artist? I’m less inclined to believe so when it isn’t a pattern. In the final few feet of closing a hit things can change a lot, and players can end up looking villainous when they aren’t.

The point with Thornton isn’t that he didn’t commit a crazy illegal act and put someone in danger, because he did. And again, he’ll be punished as he should for his dumb decision. But Thornton has gone after many players on many occasions in his decade-plus around the NHL, and on every other occasion it ended with a butt pat and an “attaboy” for sticking up for his teammates.

You never know when things are going to go physically wrong in hockey (because they usually don’t), so players need to minimize the intentional crap. That’s on them, as Sean Gentille of The Sporting News pointed out.

The NHL has to, and does suspend players for their actions when they put people in more danger than the game requires. Thornton is rightfully gonna miss a lot of hockey, and what he did wasn’t okay. This is a black mark for him. But I’m less willing to think he’s suddenly a terrible man just yet. Moving on.

I don’t love suspensions being dictated by injuries

I don’t love the concept of suspending for injury (as much as I feel bad for injured guys that are forced to sit out while the perpetrator continues to play), because it gives the punishment a random spin on the wheel of justice, and doesn’t focus on the act itself. Hit Henrik Sedin and you’re fine. Hit Marc Staal the same way and you might hurt the guy and be in the pressbox for a week. You should avoid trying to hit everyone in a manner that can hurt them, but the randomness doesn’t seem entirely fair.

To that effect, I’d have liked to have seen James Neal receive more games than he did, because he’s lucky as hell that Marchand didn’t leave on a stretcher. That “luck” shouldn’t benefit him when it’s the action we’re trying to cut from the game. Shawn Thornton arguably deserves more total games than Neal even if there isn’t an injury on his act because it was premeditated (versus Neal taking what was presented to him), but I have no doubt the optics of the stretcher and the injury will greatly expand his punishment. This is more eight and 12 games in my mind, than what I assume is going to end up five and 15.

I think the league would benefit from more suspensions on plays where there is no damage, in hopes of getting players to cut out the action entirely. Intent over injury, all day.

The best we can do with the game of hockey is minimize the reckless action

My No White Hats in Hockey theory partially involves the idea that players are not going to stop being violent simply because of the manner of the game of hockey itself. The fighting, the protection of teammates, and the hatred that occasionally bubbles up aren’t purely cultural, they’re byproducts of the sport. As much as I hate to use the phrase…if you’ve played the game even a bit – I don’t mean at a good level, I mean anything competitively at all – you know how easy it is for tensions to boil over. I’m just about the most passive hockey player in the history of the game and there were times I wanted to rip the ears off another man’s head, and that includes the odd rec league game.

It’s a dozen men or women in an adrenaline-packed rectangle moving faster than people can run standing on a surface as hard as cement inside walls as hard as wood chasing a piece of flubber in a game that allows contact. Hockey is never going to be perfectly safe, as even the more-safe and more-meek that play it occasionally find themselves tangled with another person with venom in their eyes. Even the less confrontational European game boils over into violence and fights at times. They do a better job than we do in North America at minimizing it, so there’s an obvious case to be made for improvement here, but those physical and occasionally negative elements exist at all levels of hockey for a reason.

All we can do is heavily punish the players who willingly, knowingly take it beyond the context of the game and into violence, ala James Neal and Shawn Thornton, and the league is going to do that. They might want to step up the punishment a bit more, but it’s not as though these guys are getting away with their actions scot-free. I’m one of the few that believes the NHL does a pretty decent job staying on top of the idiocy when it bubbles past the top of the pot.

Injuries happen, the intent is worth addressing, and we need to do our best to minimize the recklessness from players. Beyond that, hockey’s better than ever and it’s hardly in crisis. We can all exhale. The game is still allowed to be fun.