I think that it’s important to analyze any situation that goes wrong, particularly those that have such a negative impact on the integrity of hockey and the NHL. You want to isolate the symptoms from the root cause in an effort to learn from an ugly incident and avoid a repeat. Just as the NHL has learned from McSorley – Brashear and Bertuzzi – Moore (and hundreds of lessor acts of thuggery) I am confident that they will study this latest event and quickly take action to protect the reputation of the league and the sport. You would expect no less from any professional sports association.
There were those that stated that if Orpik had not refused to fight Thornton then the incident would have never happened. Does that mean that any player has to answer for a bodycheck or risk being blind-sided and pummelled with the potential of being taken off the ice on a stretcher? Orpik plays 20+ minutes a night against the top lines while Thornton averages a little more than 8 minutes. So top players have to drop the gloves and put their teams at a disadvantage? You have to wonder where to draw the line. Enforcers are challenging opponents to answer for cheap shots, to answer for dangerous hits, to answer for clean checks, to answer for celebrating goals or simply for because their opponent is up by 3 or 4 goals late in a game. That’s a lot of answering to be done and no one is questioning how ridiculous it has become or the fact that none of this “policing” seems to be working.
Some fans stated that everything started when Orpik hit Loui Eriksson, a sentiment echoed by Claude Julien. I can’t say if the hit was legal or not because I’m not skilled enough to decipher what the on-ice officials or Shanahan thinks is a clean hit. It seems to change from situation to situation, and player to player. The puck looked like it was almost on Eriksson’s stick, took a bad hop and Orpik levelled him when his head was down. I would offer the opinion that Orpik was guilty of taking advantage of a player when they were vulnerable. A hit at half the speed would have bumped Eriksson off of the puck, leaving him with a bruised ego instead of brain, and accomplished the goal of disrupting a breakout play. But that’s not good enough for today’s NHL teams who reward grit and toughness over respect for opponents. If you’re not willing to hit through someone and make them hurt, then there’s another 10 guys in the minors that would love to take your roster spot.
A minority of the sports media pointed out that this was a chippy game from the very start and the refs did a poor job of controlling it. This was a game that also included Neal putting his knee into Marchand’s head and Kelly suffering a broken ankle from a slash from Dupuis. Some even offered the opinion that it would be rough before the puck was even dropped. Boston has a reputation for playing tough and are usually among the top teams with fights/game every season. Pittsburgh has been a chippy team for years and, based on my tracking of Rat PIM, are usually at the top of the list for teams who incur a lot of penalties related to roughing, slashing, elbowing and other “Rat type” infractions. Perhaps the league should be tracking which teams push the limits on officiating in terms of what types of penalties they take. Teams with a higher percentage of dangerous or cheap shot penalties should get extra scrutiny. Referees who work those games should receive a pre-game briefing on strategy to control the game and keep it from getting out of hand. If the zebras went into a contest armed with real statistics, instead of just their first-hand personal perception of players, maybe more games would be about hockey, not hacking. I think the “let em play” strategy has run its course.
But the real culprit in this ugly incident has to be 40 years of history and development of a culture of violence. If you believe player surveys, every roster position on every team is filled with individuals who believe that a blow to the head will make the game safer. Referees can’t control a game that is full of players who feel entitled to take revenge for any slight, no matter who is right or wrong. Enforcers will invoke their privilege of face-punching the guilty or innocent and the officials will stand to the side until they are tired or concussed. Orpik and other hard hitting players feel compelled to deliver harder and harder hits in order ensure intimidation and contract bonuses. Thornton and his enforcer brethren will continue to guarantee a roster position by fighting each other and anyone else who is stupid enough to drop the gloves. Coaches will continue to send out 4th line marginal hockey players who deliver truculence and injuries. And the league and team owners see nothing wrong with any of it.
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Probably in the very next game.