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On Horton, Pacioretty and playing politics with brain injuries

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BOSTON — For 60 minutes on Wednesday night, Nathan Horton was there in spirit for the Boston Bruins.

Bobby Orr waved his Horton player flag before the game. Fans had roughly as many signs dedicated to Horton as wrestling fans have for John Cena at a WWE show. Ovations were sparked every time a No. 18 sweater appeared on the Jumbotron. With 8 minutes left in the third period, "Na-than Hor-ton" chants echoed through the upper deck.

Later it was revealed that Horton wasn't just there in spirit, but in body: Making an emotional appearance in the Boston Bruins' locker room. From Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo! Sports:

Horton told his teammates they had done a great job and he was proud. Then he took the kitschy late-'80s jacket the guys give to the hero of each victory — the one he had earned by scoring the winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the one they had left hanging under his nameplate Monday night because he wasn't there to pass it on, the one they would have been happy to leave there for the rest of the series in his honor. He bestowed it upon Rich Peverley, who replaced him as the first-line right winger and bookended the blowout with two goals.

"Everyone was pretty emotional to just be able to see him," Peverley said, keeping on the black jacket after the game, even though he was sweating in the sweltering dressing room. "No one's seen him since everything happened. He wanted to give it out tonight."

Given the scene when Aaron Rome knocked Horton out of the postseason in Game 3 on Monday night — a late hit that left him flat on the ice for several minutes, before leaving on a stretcher for Massachusetts General Hospital — his appearance in the locker room was a shock to his teammates.

"I was very, very happy to see Nathan up and around in the locker room. I wasn't exactly sure of his status. You know, I'd heard that he was OK, but then I heard it was a severe concussion. I didn't know if 'OK' meant he's going to live or..." said goalie Tim Thomas.

The rhetorical distance between "OK" and "severe concussion" is about as far as the distance between Boston and Vancouver. For example: Had the Bruins released that Horton was "OK" hours before Rome's hearing with the NHL, would he still have received a four-game suspension? Because his "severe concussion" was a primary factor in NHL VP Mike Murphy's ruling.

It would be inconceivably cynical to suggest that the Boston Bruins released this information to influence that suspension, and that Horton's appearance at Game 4 was some sort of bellwether about the severity of his brain injury.

It would be … had the Boston Bruins not made that suggestion already this season about the Montreal Canadiens. Paging Dr. Recchi …

Sean Gordon of the Globe & Mail almost had it right when he compared the Rome/Horton hit to the one in which Zdeno Chara steered Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens into a stanchion, giving him what coach Jacques Martin initially called "a severe concussion, as well as a fracture of the fourth cervical vertebrae" back in March. What happened on the ice isn't necessarily comparable, but the reactions to the hits are.

A week after the Chara check, Martin revealed that Pacioretty's prognosis had, somewhat miraculously, improved to the point where he could begin training again.

Mark Recchi of the Bruins appeared on 98.5 The Sports Hub ahead of the Bruins' first game against Montreal since the incident. Egged on by the hosts, he accused the Habs of playing politics with the injury to maximize its impact:

Q. Has the story changed in your mind since it turns out Pacioretty's OK? That he'll probably be ready for the playoffs?

RECCHI: "Well, you know what? We're very thankful that he is OK and he's getting better. We know he was twittering at a movie four days later, five days later. Obviously if you have a bad concussion like they said, you're not going to be in a movie. So we're glad in that sense that he's getting better. But it was a hockey play and an injury happened."

 

Q. Yeah, well, Mark, let me be more direct: Does it bother you they embellished it, obviously?

"Well obviously, yeah. When there's an injury … he does obviously have a fractured vertebrae, but the concussion was obviously, really a non-factor. Maybe a day or two. Maybe a day he felt it, and then he was fine couple days later. I believe yeah, they were trying to get Zdeno suspended and they embellished it a little bit. I guess in terms of that side, I guess they were trying to do what they could to get him suspended."

Recchi would later claim he was "trying to take the heat off" of Chara with his comments, but the damage was done: The Habs were accused of embellishing a brain injury for political points and the "Dr. Recchi" meme was born.

Which brings us back to Nathan Horton, and a teachable moment for the NHL.

Recchi looked tactless in discussing Pacioretty, and now his words look utterly hypocritical given the timing of the Bruins' release and the fact that Horton was back in the arena 48 hours after his "severe concussion."

This isn't to say either the Bruins or the Canadiens did or did not try to manipulate the process by opportunistically releasing injury information or embellish an injury. This is to say that calling a team out for it is a slippery slope and, ultimately, a treacherous decision. The Montreal Canadiens, and their fans, have every right to call out Recchi and the Bruins for this today.

This is also to say that the NHL invites this sort of thing by weighing injuries so heavily in its supplemental discipline process over something like intent. Murphy said he doesn't know "how long Nathan Horton is going to be injured for" but that the suspension was based on the "lateness [of the hit] combined with the injury."

For me, the Recchi/Pacioretty thing from earlier this season put a damper on Horton's inspiring moment after Game 4, which is a shame. Both Pacioretty and Horton are victims of "hockey plays gone bad"; robbed of an opportunity by an unfortunate circumstance, caught up in the politics of it all.

Which is why despite accusations and hypocrisy, this moment from Pacioretty on Twitter was a reminder that there are still moments of grace to be found in even the most contentious disputes:

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