Shawn Thornton, Alexei Emelin and fallacy of Fighting Code

From Marc Antoine Godin of La Presse came this golden nugget from Shawn Thornton, the Masterton Trophy nominated forward from the Florida Panthers, speaking about Alexei Emelin of the Montreal Canadiens:

“I think he’s what’s wrong with the League these days. I think there’s no accountability anymore. You can run around and take headshots at our captain and just turtle and the refs save your life. I’m getting out at the right time because I liked the game when you had to be a man and look at yourself in the mirror. So that’s my honest opinion of that guy. I don’t have any respect for him. I think he’s a pretty good defenseman but I don’t like the way he plays. I don’t mind people playing hard but I’ve seen him with a lot of cheap shit in the last 10 years. I don’t mind battling but I’ve seen him head hunt a lot of guys and never ever answer for it. Say what you will about me, I’ve always taken my beating like a man when I had to. I didn’t back down from John Scott when they signed him in Buffalo and I didn’t back down from Laraque and they signed him here. I can look at myself in the mirror. I’m not sure that idiot can.”

Three things about this rant:

1 – There is admittedly something very primal and appealing about a nefarious player getting his comeuppance for an illegal or injurious act. Frontier justice isn’t exactly en vogue in 2017, but that’s because hockey fans have to disown it for the sake of player safety or so they can self-identify as hockey fans without needing to explain such Neanderthalic concepts as “The Code” to the normals.

But fans actually admire this concept that Thornton explains here: The idea that the cowardly bad guy gets what’s coming to him. That’s why there wasn’t much outrage when Micheal Haley of the San Jose Sharks one-punch dropped Calle Jarnkrok of the Nashville Predators after Jarnkrok ran him from behind, because Jarnkrok deserved it. That’s why the hockey world was watching the Calgary Flames’ game against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night: To see if everyone’s new little ball of hate Matthew Tkachuk would pay for his words and actions against Drew Doughty, and if so how it would happen, and if so how he would up the rivalry.

Again, this isn’t the NHL we can really talk about in 2017 with our non-hockey friends, but it’s the one that keeps us watching: The very simply concepts of “justice” that create easy to digest narratives in a confusing world.

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2 –  But we don’t like frontier justice all the time.

Like when The Honorable Code-Following Shawn Thornton hunted down Brooks Orpik and beat the snot out of a guy who wasn’t looking to fight.

But hey, we’re sure he was able to look in the mirror and know that he did his job well that night.

Much like Alexei Emelin can look in the mirror and know that he did what he’s paid for when he cheap-shots someone and then enrages the opposing team by not answering for it.

Which is to say that for all the talk about “honor” and “acting like a man” in this game, it really comes down to what’s expected of you by the person cutting your check.

Thornton, of all people, knows this.

3 – I’ve spoken with too many enforcers that can eloquently explain how their presence in a game could keep the peace or make an opponent think twice before taking liberties with their teammates. Anti-fighting critics see this testimony as circumstantial, but I do think there’s an element of truth to that “enforcement” affecting a game.

What I don’t buy is that this intimidation is anything but centralized to one game or simply short-term.

There were rats running around cheap-shotting players when fighting was at its apex and there are rats running around taking cheap shots now that fighting is at its lowest recorded levels. Today’s Alexei Emelin is yesterday’s Bryan Marchment, to use a player that was still kicking around when Thornton was a rookie.

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Whenever an enforcer starts waxing nostalgic about “accountability,” part of me laments the loss of frontier justice – for its pure, primordial satisfaction – but most of me wishes we could dispel with the myth that “answering the bell” and “taking it like a man” is some kind of rat poison.

It’s not. It’s temporary gratification that does nothing to ultimately change behavior. It never has. It never will.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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