Changed man or suspension-in-waiting? Raffi Torres keeps it clean one year after Marian Hossa hit

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

No one in Chicago will feel sorry for Raffi Torres. No one should.

It was a year ago Wednesday when Torres jumped and crashed his shoulder into the head of an unsuspecting Marian Hossa at high speed, sending the Blackhawks star flying through the air, knocking him flat on his back and out of the playoffs. Hossa was strapped down and carted off, an official holding his hands as they lay folded atop his body. He suffered a concussion.

Torres, a repeat offender, ended up serving a 21-game suspension. He missed the rest of the Phoenix Coyotes’ run to the Western Conference final. He missed the start of this season. He deserved every second of it.

But now a year has passed, and Torres has done his time. He has been traded to the San Jose Sharks, and the playoffs are approaching again, and he needs to earn another contract as a pending unrestricted free agent. As he reflected on what happened then, what has happened since and what needs to happen in the future, he sounded, well, guilty.

There was regret. There was remorse.

“It’s the worst thing in the world to be on the other end of a guy that you’ve put out,” Torres said. “The guy’s getting taken off on a stretcher. You don’t know if he’s ever going to play again. It wasn’t easy for me to see that kind of stuff. What I do on the ice is not who I am off the ice.

“So feelings-wise, it was tough to deal with that. I don’t know. I’m just at a point right now where I have a lot more respect for other players out there on the ice. I just want to go out and play hockey and play hard.”

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Has Torres changed? It’s too early to say. He has played only 33 games since his suspension, a pretty small sample size. He knows people are waiting for him to screw up again and serve 50 games or something.

But at least he’s aware of that threat, and clearly he is trying to change. He has taken only 17 minutes in penalties this season, a small amount even for a guy who has never racked up all that many. Five were for an answer-the-bell fight Feb. 7, the first time he faced the ’Hawks since he hit Hossa. He has taken only one roughing penalty. His first elbowing penalty came Monday night, when he faced the Coyotes, his former team. He has not been fined, let alone suspended.

The parallel to Matt Cooke is striking. Again, we have a player who has repeatedly crossed the line. Again, we have a player who was scared straight. Again, we have a player who has worked to shed old habits and adapt to new rules. Again, at least it seems, we have a player who is learning to play on the edge without going over it, bringing value without the same violence.

“I feel like I can do more out there than just go out and run around and be an idiot,” Torres said. “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.”

* * * * *

Earlier in his career, Torres learned to be physical as he earned his spot in the NHL, even though he had been scorer in junior and the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft. He was taught to finish his checks, finish his checks, finish his checks. Take Craig MacTavish, the coach of the Oilers when Torres played in Edmonton from 2003-08.

“I can’t tell you how many times Mac-T would come up to me and say, ‘We need a big hit. Try and get someone here,’ ” Torres said. “Not in, like, a dirty way. But just to get the momentum back.”

That doesn’t excuse everything, but it adds context. So does this: The rules were different then, and the NHL has changed them twice since in an effort to reduce concussions – first outlawing lateral or blindside hits when the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact, then outlawing all hits when the head is targeted and the principle point of contact. The league also stiffened the boarding rule while making Brendan Shanahan the new disciplinarian, creating the department of player safety and explaining suspensions via video.

The philosophy has been to help the game evolve through education more than through punishment, reserving harsh suspensions for repeat offenders. The NHL and NHLPA have not supported long suspensions in general. Teams don’t want their players sitting out. The union doesn’t want its members missing games and losing pay.

Shanahan has pointed out that different types of punishments get the attention of different types of players. One game might be enough for one player. Twenty-one games might be necessary for another. Well, the biggest success stories have been the harshest suspensions – partly because these repeat offenders had the most to clean up, partly because they needed such harsh suspensions to get their attention and make them pay attention to the education.

Cooke was suspended for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs in 2010-11 after a throwing an elbow into the head of the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh. It was made clear to him, by the league and his team, that the consequences would be worse next time.

Though he wasn’t suspended by Shanahan, but by Colin Campbell, Cooke flew to New York to meet the new head of the department of player safety and kept in touch with him. Shanahan sent him videos. The Penguins coaches showed him videos, too. He learned what not to do. Just as important, he learned what to do.

The result: Cooke has changed his game, contributed to the Penguins’ success and stayed out of trouble – unless you count the Erik Karlsson incident, or Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk’s private investigators find forensic evidence that Cooke deliberately used his skate to cut Karlsson’s Achilles tendon.

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Torres was suspended for 25 games originally. The department of player safety considered the closest comparable the 20-game suspension that the Philadelphia Flyers’ Steve Downie received for hitting the Ottawa Senators’ Dean McAmmond in 2007, because there were actually multiple infractions on the same play. This was Torres’ third strike of the season – after a fine and suspension – and he had delivered the same type of check to the head multiple times. The Coyotes had a maximum of 25 games left. The point was to assure Torres would miss at least the rest of the playoffs.

The NHLPA appealed the length of the suspension, and commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Torres for 21 games – after the playoffs had ended and just as labor negotiations were about to begin, with the appeals process at issue. Because the Coyotes had played 13 more playoff games, that left eight games for the start of this season.

Under the new labor agreement, suspensions of longer than six games can be appealed to a neutral arbitrator instead of the commissioner. We have yet to see a test case, though the Montreal Canadiens’ Ryan White has an in-person hearing Wednesday for his hit to the head of the Flyers’ Kent Huskins, meaning he could receive a suspension of six games or more.

* * * * *

Unlike Cooke, Torres did not communicate with Shanahan or the department of player safety after his suspension. But like Cooke, he got the message. He said after the Hossa hit he recognized he was “getting to that point” when another incident could affect him “long term.” And like Cooke, he studied video and received new instructions from his coaches.

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett showed him about 20 to 25 minutes worth of hits on at least two occasions during his eight-game absence to start the season. Tippett told the Arizona Republic it was to make him “a little less dangerous” and “take some of the recklessness” out of his game.

Tippett recalibrated the risk-reward ratio by showing Torres clips of himself in 50-50 situations, when a play could go one way or another. Here, he went for the big hit just for the sake of it. But there, he went for the puck, or he kept his feet on the ice and took the body to create a turnover. Why risk a suspension when you can be effective the other way – “the right way,” in Torres’ words?

“Just by going over clips and clips and clips of that, and seeing that you can do it and I’ve done it before, made it easier,” Torres said. “My problem’s always been, I get a little too emotional out there. That’s when I get in trouble. But I’ve just taken a step back.”

Torres said he is lighter and leaner because he has taken better care of his body in recent years. He’s quicker, so he can get to a spot when the puck is there, not after it is gone. He has been trying to lead with his stick, to knock his opponent off the puck, to make a play after the hit, instead of raising his stick and simply finishing the hit.

The Sharks acquired him at the trade deadline because they thought he could help down the stretch and in the playoffs, not hurt. They thought he could add grit and speed. Coach Todd McLellan had only a brief talk with him.

“My conversation to him was, ‘You have assets. You have to use them, and you can’t get backed off completely. But be smart,’ ” McLellan said. “In my time around him, he has been a very respectful guy that I think understands that.”

Torres went to Game 7 the Stanley Cup final with the Oilers in 2006, and lost. He went to Game 7 of the Cup final with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, and lost. Though the Coyotes went to the conference final last season, he lost out. Now he can smell the playoffs again.

“It’s what I live for,” he said.

It’s up to him to keep the dream alive.

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