The NHL sent a clear message in giving Boston Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton a 15-game suspension for “pulling [Brooks] Orpik out of a scrum, yanking him to the ice and punching him multiple times, leading to a serious injury.”
The message is not so much to one player (Thornton) who had crossed the line, though. This suspension was all about letting lawyers and ex-players and anyone else who is inclined to take the league to task for its approach to violence know that it is capable of policing itself and is serious about eliminating these incidents.
In handing down the second-longest suspension of the Brendan Shanahan-era, it didn’t matter that Thornton was a highly respected player who has assayed the role of enforcer with honor for more than 500 games. This wasn’t a hockey play gone wrong. It was a dangerous act of premeditated retribution. With this sentence, the league made it clear that kind of incident will be severely punished, regardless of a player’s motivation or reputation.
There’s an argument to be made that Orpik had something coming to him for his gutless cheap shot on Loui Eriksson earlier in the game, and it was his unwillingness to stand up to Thornton’s earlier challenge that led to the tragic escalation of hostility. You can be sure that plenty of people in the game have no issue with the Bruin seeking his pound of flesh.
But while “The Code” — those ill-defined rules of accountability that have governed on-ice conduct for decades — may stand up on ice…
…it would wither under examination in court.
So 15 games, then, is a pledge. A show of good faith to players and fans — and potential jurors — that the league won’t let the mayhem of the past define it in the future.
That won’t be enough for everybody, but it’s evidence the league takes any breach of conduct seriously.
And these days, evidence is probably more important than deterrence.