The NHL is going to win the appeal case with Shawn Thornton.
Does that mean the neutral arbitrator is going to uphold the 15-game suspension given to the Boston Bruins forward for his slew-foot/gloved punch attack on Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins? Not necessarily.
As I spelled out on Monday, the only question at hand in this appeal is how the NHL arrived at 15 games.
Was it in comparison to other suspensions handed out by the Department of Player Safety? Was it in comparison with suspensions throughout NHL history, before Sheriff Shanahan rode into town? If so, how many of those seemingly comparable acts were stick or skate fouls, rather than gloved punches? It matters: The NHL, historically, has had a higher standard for punishment for high sticks and slashes than for punches, outside of a few cases.
How many of them involved repeat offenders? Most, as we went through yesterday. Thornton isn’t one, and that’s the basis for the NHLPA’s appeal (one assumes).
Based on these issues, Thornton and the union could win the appeal, but the more I think about it, the more I don’t think that’s a loss for the NHL whether their ruling is upheld or overturned.
If Thornton still gets the 15 games, well, good on you NHL for going strong against the guy despite his not having any priors. The Hockey News pundits that constantly filet the league for its inaction on player safety will pop bottles.
If a neutral arbitrator knocks this thing down to 12 games, let’s say, it’s still a significant suspension for a first-time offender. It's still the largest regular-season suspension given out by the NHL under Shanahan.
Conspiracy theory time: What if the NHL built in a few games on this thing in anticipation of it potentially getting reduced? It’s like when Trey Parker and Matt Stone threw in some exceptionally lewd material into “South Park” and “Team America” in anticipation of the MPAA censoring it, so other slightly-less-lewd-but-still-heinous material made the cut.
So the NHL goes 15, but is OK with 12, knowing a neutral arbitrator might reduce the penalty for a first-time offender.
Just a theory …
But let’s say the NHL loses the appeal: What’s the reaction? (Please read the following in your best Gary Bettman and/or Bill Daly voice):
“Well, we tried to throw the book at the guy like everyone wanted, but the NHLPA collectively bargained for this arbitrator that doesn’t know the game to be the final word, and he stood in the way of our properly punishing this injurious, disgraceful behavior. Player safety is of an utmost importance to us, and while we would never begrudge the union its collectively bargain right to appeal, we feel this ruling in an impediment to our mission to protect the players and give our fans the game they deserve.”
(Gotta mention the fans. It's the "HELLO CLEVELAND!" of NHL press release statements.)
It’s not all upside for the NHL. Their egos would bruised from an arbitrator’s rebuke, and the NHLPA’s resolve in the appeals process would be strengthened. Even if this case is unique in that it doesn't involve a repeat offender.
But again, what does the NHL lose? A few games off a massive suspension?
Either way, they can claim they did what was in the best interests of the League. Even if the NHL's suspension is viewed as being built on a shaky foundation from a statutory standpoint, they'll be sturdy on the moral high ground vs. the union.
But the real question, that the Dept. of Player Safety didn’t have an answer for when I pestered them a few months ago: Should the 15 given to Thornton by the NHL or the reduced number from the arbitrator be used in a subsequent hearing should he run afoul of the League?