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Shawn Thornton deserves massive suspension for dishonoring NHL’s honor code and himself

Greg Wyshynski
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“This cannot be described as a hockey play that went bad.”

The majority of Brendan Shanahan’s Department of Player Safety rulings are exercises in nuance about “hockey plays gone bad.” A hit timed incorrectly. A body angled in a peculiar way. Hitting the numbers instead of the side. Hitting the head instead of torso.

What Shawn Thornton did to Brooks Oprik to earn a 15-game suspension from the NHL on Saturday – skating over, slew-footing him and then pounding his face with a few gloved punches – wasn’t a “hockey play” but that doesn’t mean it’s not part of hockey. Because retribution, violence and an (albeit warped) honor code are all hallmarks of the NHL, and Shawn Thornton was following those tenets.

But the League, the players, the fans … we all have our own Code, our own unspoken agreement as caretakers of this niche sport:

Don’t do anything that brings undo attention to our quaint little lawless society.

Don’t do anything that invites the real world into the rink. And don’t, for love of Bertuzzi, don’t do anything that exposes the honor system of our game as the twisted, hypocritical and deleterious thing that it actually is.

To that end, Thornton violated both the nebulous fighting “Code” and that unspoken covenant.

His actions made the NHL look like a ghastly, anarchic league, which was fine in the past when it was inherent to hockey’s charm but couldn’t also result in a multi-hundred-million-dollar lawsuit regarding their approach to player safety. They embarrassed the league and embarrassed the players, although those parties’ humiliation may pale in comparison to that of Thornton himself, the King of "The Code” who just watched his crown crumble into dust.

• • •

You know what I heard from Shanahan in the suspension video? A player.

“Yank’em to the ice” and “punch’em multiple times” were said in a conversational tone that one doesn’t usually associate with the forced diction of Department of Player Safety videos.

Shanahan usually approaches these things with a former player’s mindset, but I imagine it was tenfold here: Shawn Thornton [expletived] it up for the rest of us.

His actions made the mainstream take notice -- hey, ESPN coverage! -- and look down at hockey at a time when any action that results in a brain injury in any sport is immediately demonized. His actions made it harder for players like Thornton and the NHL to defend the “code” of retribution, and in a roundabout way justify fighting in a concussion awareness culture.

Can anyone ever read this from Thornton to ESPN earlier this month without a sharp slap to the forehead?

“I take a lot of pride in [The Code]. I do. People could probably criticize that I’m a little too honorable, I suppose, in some instances. I've been a firm believer my whole life that what goes around comes around. If you’re one of those guys that suckers someone when they’re down or you go after somebody that doesn’t deserve it or isn’t the same category as you, that will come back and bite you at some point, too.”

Or this from Cam Janssen, in a defense of Thornton from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that that condemned Orpik for not fighting:

“You don’t fight Thornton, Thornton calls you out, he’s calling you out in front of everybody, and you don’t fight, then it’s not over. Then we’ve got to get our justice. We’ve got to get our justice and then something happens and boom that happens.”

Or this idiocy:

“If Orpik just would have dropped his gloves and grabbed on – he’s a strong guy – grabbed on, held off Thornton, maybe took a couple [punches], and threw him down or whatever the case it, then it’s over. Then it’s over. Then it’s done. You fought. You stuck up for yourself.”

Look, I agree with the premise that “answering the bell” is an honorable thing to do in most situations. Milan Lucic runs over Ryan Miller and has to take a few blows from Paul Gaustad. That sort of thing.

But even I can’t go with ‘just hug him while he pounds the back of your head’. It’s as stupid as those who blame Orpik for the incident (so Janssen’s two-for-two here).

I’m pro-fighting. I’m all-in for the honor thing, the warrior thing. But if “The Code” actually reads “you fight because I want to fight you and if you chose not to fight I’ll assault you anyway,” then it might be time for me to sip tea with Steve Yzerman as we mutually cherish the virtue of Olympic play.

Yet Ray Emery followed that code with Braden Holtby earlier this year, and Thornton followed it with Orpik. It’s hard enough on we, the fighting enthusiasts, to convince others that our knuckles don’t spark as we walk down the street from all the dragging; now we have to discuss this within that context, to a crowd that isn't swallowing "well, that's not fighting" as a justification?

• • •

But back to the Shanahan video. Notice he never names Loui Eriksson, who received that massive hit from Orpik that drew the ire of Thornton as the resident enforced. It’s merely “an incident from earlier in the game.”

It doesn’t matter. It’s no excuse. Settle it another way if the guy you’re chasing around doesn’t want to fight. Don’t slew foot him and then pound him while he’s down. Don’t act the tough guy then take the coward’s path.

And it was an act of cowardice on the part of Thornton, which makes this all so disappointing. When John Scott was ridiculed as a thug who can’t play in the League, Thornton was upheld as an enforcer who made a difference: Through strong shifts, through occasional offense and through his physical presence in the Bruins’ lineup. He did it right, he did it without any supplemental discipline, and then he did something completely wrong, and no postgame almost-tears or NHLPA appeals are going to change the fact that he descended from the moral high ground like he was on a potato sack slide at a county fair.

Like we said: Shanahan and the NHL usually deal with nuance in suspensions, making it difficult to determine intent or measure the true level of recklessness. It breeds hesitation to make those “statement suspensions” that declare to the world that the NHL won’t stand for it anymore.

But like we all know: The NHL picks its spots well.

Banning Todd Bertuzzi for a year when his Steve Moore assault landed on “The Today Show.” Rejecting the Ilya Kovalchuk contract to make their cap circumvention point, because it was a slam-dunk case. Throwing the book at Raffi Torres for putting Marian Hossa on a stretcher or at Chris Simon for slicing Jarkko Ruutu’s tendon, because repeat offenders are tender enough to nail to the cross.

The Shawn Thornton suspension enters that pantheon of easy calls.There will be those who think it didn’t go far enough, but understand the context: It’s the longest regular-season suspension in Shanahan’s reign, and by far the longest for a first-time offender.

And there are those like Cam Neely that think it went too far:

“if (Brad) Marchand gets hurt (when kicked in the head by Penguin James Nealy) is it 15 games for a knee to the head? We've had our fair share of players hurt badly by concussions. I don't think anyone's gotten a 15-game suspension out of those. Thornton is a guy who plays the role he plays and has never had any suspensions or issues. It comes down a little harsh for me."

(Are we really feigning surprise at “suspend to the injury” in 2013, Sea Bass?)

It wasn’t a little harsh: It was completely harsh. Because it had to be. Because Thornton embarrassed the role, embarrassed the Bruins and embarrassed the League by forcing it to openly acknowledge how dishonorable its honor code can become.

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