15 games have passed since December 7, the night the Boston Bruins lost Loui Eriksson to a concussion after a hit from Brooks Orpik, and then lost Shawn Thornton to a 15-game suspension for avenging the hit.
After James Neal took a route past a fallen Brad Marchand that happened to go right through Marchand's knee-level head, a scrum broke out, and Thornton took the moment to make Orpik answer for his original hit. He kicked the defender's legs out, then punched him twice once he was on the ground. Orpik left on a stretcher.
But the Boston enforcer has done his time. Thornton is finally eligible to play, and will make his return to the Boston lineup Saturday night versus the San Jose Sharks. (Fittingly, Eriksson may be back too. The winger has been cleared for contact and is listed as questionable for the game.)
Thornton really had one job: defending his teammates from the sort of stuff he felt the Penguins were doing back in early December. But now he has another task: doing so while proving to people that he's not the dirty player his actions that night suggest.
It's easier said than done, because if Thornton admits that he snapped a little versus Pittsburgh -- the most reasonable explanation for an act that seems utterly out of character for a guy that considers himself, in his own words, "too honorable" -- one might suspect that he could easily snap again.
So no, he did not snap.
“It was an emotional game," Thornton told the Boston Globe, "but I wasn’t out of control when I was doing what I was doing.”
In Thornton's mind, what we saw as an assault was actually a picture of restraint.
“Two of my players had been knocked out in the first 10 minutes,” Thornton said, referring to Eriksson and Brad Marchand, who took a knee to the head by James Neal. “It’s my job to defend that. I was trying to defend it without” — he paused — “This is where it gets tricky because I know the optics of it look like I was trying to absolutely murder somebody, but in my head I wasn’t.
“I didn’t snap. I wasn’t out of control. I kept my glove on for a reason. I pulled him down. I didn’t let his head hit the ice. Which probably, again, doesn’t make much sense if you’re going to throw two punches at somebody. But I didn’t.”
It was, apparently, a gentle and controlled attack. Thornton laid Orpik's head down ever so, and then touched it softly, by way of two gloved punches that had the unfortunate side effect of rendering Orpik briefly unconscious.
But really this was little more than a light sprinkling with pixie dust. Orpik should have been off to Neverland, not dreamland.
The way Thornton toes the line in this Globe article -- which is, in my mind, a must-read -- is actually pretty fascinating. By owning the moment, by demonstrating how in-control he was, Thornton raises the question of why, then, he would do what he did, if he's truly so honorable.
That never really gets answered. Why should it? No one questions Shawn Thornton's honor in Boston. And in Thornton's mind, it doesn't have to be answered, because it's over.
“I [screwed] up,” he told the Globe. “I’m aware of it. Brooksie accepted my apology. I did my time. I felt like I’ve paid handsomely for it. I’ve put myself through the ringer mentally too, now it’s time to put it behind me.”
No kidding. Balancing the intent and the contrition alone is a tough mental task.
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