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This is what it came down to: Raffi Torres was a repeat offender. He was just 44 games removed from one of the longest suspensions in NHL history. He delivered another illegal check to the head that caused another brain injury – the exact type of check and the exact type of injury the league has made a major effort to reduce for the last three years.
The incident happened Tuesday night in Game 1 of a second-round playoff series between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. The NHL did not know whether Stoll would miss the rest of the series. Concussions are difficult to predict. But the league looked at medical reports, and it did know that Stoll would not only miss Thursday night’s Game 2, but would stay away from Staples Center to avoid bright lights and loud noises.
Officials from the department of player safety debated suspending Torres in the four- to six-game range. But ultimately NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan decided Torres had lost the privilege of playing the rest of the series, simple as that, a move not unprecedented.
And frankly, Torres is lucky. His suspension could be as little as three games. The mere possibility that it could be as long as six opens the door for appeals all the way to a neutral arbitrator, Yahoo! Sports has confirmed, according to a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement that has yet to be tested.
Had the NHL issued a suspension that carried over to 2013-14, Torres would have lost salary because players’ pay is based on the regular season. This way he will not. Had the league wanted to avoid an appeal to a neutral arbitrator, it could have suspended him for five games. It did not.
[Watch: NHL explains Raffi Torres suspension decision]
If anything, the league went light on Torres, considering his history, the emphasis on repeat offenders and the goal of changing behavior. He needs to get the message, not the mixed messages he receives when he makes an illegal play that injures a fellow player – a former teammate and friend at that – and his general manager, coach, captain and teammates tell him he did nothing wrong.
Rewind to the playoffs last year. Playing for the Phoenix Coyotes in a first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, Torres launched himself into the head of an unsuspecting Marian Hossa at high speed, sending Hossa flying through the air and knocking him flat on his back. Hossa was stretchered off the ice. He suffered a concussion.
Shanahan suspended Torres for 25 games for several reasons: Torres was not only a repeat offender, with a fine and a suspension already in 2011-12 alone, but he had a specific history of this type of hit. There were multiple infractions on the play. Hossa suffered a serious injury. The Coyotes had a maximum of 25 games left, and Shanahan decided Torres had lost the privilege of playing in the playoffs.
The NHL Players’ Association appealed on behalf of Torres. Under the previous labor agreement, all appeals went to commissioner Gary Bettman. After the season ended, Bettman gave Torres a 21-game suspension – 13 games of time served, plus eight the next season – just as labor talks were about to begin with the appeals process among the issues.
Torres worked on changing his approach to hitting, studying video with Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, making adjustments on the ice after the lockout and his suspension ended. The Sharks felt he was worth the risk to pick up at the trade deadline to add speed and a physical edge. He was a key player in the first round, scoring an overtime winner in the Sharks’ sweep of the Vancouver Canucks.
He was reviewed by the department of player safety at least twice this season, but he wasn’t fined, let alone suspended. He took only 17 minutes in penalties in 39 regular-season games – five for an answer-the-bell fight in his first game against the Blackhawks, only two for roughing, only two for elbowing, none for charging, none for an illegal hit to the head.
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports in April, he expressed remorse for the Hossa hit and a desire to play the game “the right way,” as he put it.
“I feel like I can do more out there than just go out and run around and be an idiot,” Torres said then. “I feel like I can make plays. I can skate. I can get to open ice. I think that’s the reason why I’m still in the game. I still can’t veer away from the physical contact, but I’ve got to keep it in the guidelines.”
[Also: Carolina's Eric Staal hurt in knee-on-knee hit at worlds]
This time he didn’t. His hit on Stoll wasn’t as egregious as his hit on Hossa, but it shouldn’t be judged on the Raffi Torres scale. It should be judged on the spectrum of hits that has been established by the NHL, more clearly than people realize if they have not been paying close attention. It’s also why he is looking at three to six games instead of 21 or 25 or more.
Stoll was bent over. Torres stayed low and kept his skates on the ice. Torres also made initial contact with the shoulder. But Torres drove through Stoll’s head and not his body. Under Rule 48, you cannot target the head and make it the principal point of contact. Targeting means intentional or reckless. Principal means main, not initial. This is not new.
Torres should know better, based on his experience, based on the league’s crackdown over the past three years, based on the educational videos the NHL has released or based on what has happened in these playoffs, with suspensions to the Ottawa Senators’ Eric Gryba and the Detroit Red Wings’ Justin Abdelkader. Hit the head, and you put your opponent at risk for injury, yourself at risk for suspension and your team at risk for personnel loss.
The new collective bargaining agreement has not been released publicly. But it is in full effect, and according to two sources, Article 18.10 states: “As a general matter, a Player who is suspended shall serve a specific number of games.”
The NHL thinks the words “general matter” are included to cover situations like this. Colin Campbell, Shanahan’s predecessor, suspended the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke for the final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs in 2011. The NHLPA might disagree. We’ll see. A union spokesman had no comment Thursday night.
[More: Alex Ovechkin suffers foot fracture, another 5-goal elimination loss]
Torres has 48 hours to appeal to Bettman via the NHLPA. If he appeals, Bettman will rule independently on an expedited basis. If Bettman rules six games or more, Torres will have seven days to appeal to a neutral arbitrator, or if there isn’t one in place, the impartial arbitrator. There isn’t a neutral arbitrator in place yet, so it would be impartial arbitrator George Nicolau. If Torres goes that far, Nicolau will rule independently, too. Like Bettman, he could go shorter – or longer.
It remains to be seen whether Torres will appeal or whether he could even get all the way through the process in time to come back in this series. It would be fascinating and important on a legal level, setting a precedent for the future. But here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Torres has the right to a full and fair defense. But he needs to understand what he did was wrong, and he doesn’t need to be enabled or confused by his employers and teammates when they are blinded by the competition for the Cup. It was disappointing and predictable to hear Sharks like Joe Thornton and Logan Couture defending not just Torres, but the hit as well.
It’s one thing to fear the league. It’s another to fear for your job, and Torres needs another one. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He needs to accept this suspension, and he needs to continue what he was doing before. He needs to continue trying to change.
“My problem’s always been, I get a little too emotional out there,” Torres said in April. “That’s when I get in trouble. But I’ve just taken a step back.”
Torres needs to take another step back. Careers might depend on it. Including his own.
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