The NHL was right to suspend Boston’s Shawn Thornton 15 games for his premeditated assault Dec. 7 on Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik, though it should have suspended Pittsburgh forward James Neal more than five games for kneeing Boston’s Brad Marchand in the head in the same game on a play that had nothing to do with hockey, civility or sense.
The verdict rendered Saturday on Thornton by Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s czar of discipline, triggered predictably partisan reactions and absurd claims that Orpik was to blame because he declined Thornton’s invitations to fight. Orpik wasn’t obligated to fight and Thornton went too far in slew-footing and then punching Orpik in the head while he was down. Thornton filed an appeal Monday that will be heard by Commissioner Gary Bettman; if Bettman upholds the suspension, Thornton can appeal to a neutral arbitrator. No player has done that under the current labor deal.
The problem is that the likelihood that Thornton would be severely punished hasn’t had much of a chilling effect.
Since that incident, six players have been suspended for illegal hits. Edmonton defenseman Corey Potter was the latest, getting a two-game ban Monday for recklessly pushing Anaheim Ducks forward Nick Bonino into the boards Sunday. Pittsburgh defenseman Deryk Engelland is scheduled to have an in-person hearing Wednesday for his hit last week to the head of Detroit left wing Justin Abdelkeder, which means Engelland’s sentence can exceed five games.
Hockey is an emotional game played at a fast pace, and players caught up in the moment aren’t likely to pause, think of Thornton’s 15-game ban, and avoid delivering an illegal hit. Punishments must be meted out to maintain boundaries but if these frightening hits are going to stop, a new culture must be established when players are young.
Kids must be taught it’s imperative to respect opponents, and that idea must be reinforced at every level. Educate them about the perils of brain injuries and what might happen when they ram someone head-first into the boards — or if they’re on the receiving end. Don’t take out the hitting, just take out the stupidity.
Shanahan made the correct decision. Unfortunately, applying logic to an emotional game doesn’t always produce ideal results.
THE NHL JUST GOT A LOT MORE FUN
Maybe Brian Burke wanted his hair to look wild and disheveled at the news conference last week where he announced he would become the Calgary Flames’ interim general manager after Jay Feaster was fired.
When Burke agreed in September to be the Flames’ director of hockey operations he insisted he wouldn’t be the general manager. So much for that. Burke is too hands-on and the Flames were too big a disappointment for him to merely watch, and it would shock no one if he stays on a long-term basis.
Burke repeatedly said he wants the Flames to be bigger, more physical and — his favorite word — truculent. All of which would lead to scraps that are bound to leave his players’ hair looking as mussed as his was.
“We’re not hostile enough for me. I don’t like playing flag football,” he said. “I like teams that bang. I don’t like the way we play. ... We want black and blue hockey here.”
It all begins with solid drafting and development, not just a mean disposition. This won’t be a quick fix.
STILL THE CHAMPS
The Blackhawks are No. 1 in the NHL this season despite losing goaltender Corey Crawford to a groin injury, and it’s worth considering if they can become the first repeat Stanley Cup winners since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998.
The obvious pitfall is injuries. The 2012 champion Los Angeles Kings did well to reach the West final last season with a banged-up team, but the Blackhawks have the depth in numbers and nature to give it a good run.
“I like our team. I think we’ve got a lot of the same characteristics that were important when we did win the Cup, and a lot of the same people,” coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday after his team’s 3-1 victory over the Kings at the United Center.
“I think our core group that had the privilege of winning both Cups (2010 and 2013) are in place and I think they lead the way and their attitude and their approach game to game puts us in the right place. They prioritize the importance of being good every single night or every shift, and it’s contagious.”
That triumph Sunday tied Quenneville for fourth in regular-season coaching victories, with 684. Asked if he can catch Scotty Bowman’s 1,244, he was emphatic. “Not a chance,” he said, smiling.
The U.S. Olympic goaltending pool took another hit last week when Detroit’s Jimmy Howard sprained his knee. He’s expected to be out two to four weeks. Jonathan Quick of the Kings (groin strain) skated last week for the first time since his Nov. 12 injury and is expected to be ready for the Sochi Games.
Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan was placed on injured reserve last week after experiencing unexplained fevers and headaches. ... Steven Stamkos took part in some stick-handling drills with his Tampa Bay teammates last week, just under seven weeks since he broke his leg and needed surgery. He’s still far from returning but said it helped his spirits to get onto the ice.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
— Chicago wing Patrick Kane is giving Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby a good challenge for the scoring title. Kane's assist Sunday in the Blackhawks’ 3-1 victory over the Kings extended his point streak to nine games and 21 of his last 22. Through Sunday’s games he had 19 goals and 45 points, one point behind Crosby.
— The Vancouver Canucks seem to have grasped coach John Tortorella’s defensive intensity. They’ve won seven straight games, each without giving up more than two goals. And kudos to them for participating in a hilarious video/photo shoot featuring players wearing incredibly ugly holiday sweaters. The sweaters were put up for auction to benefit a charity.
— Minnesota forward Charlie Coyle’s simple wave to a little boy during pregame warmups is a reminder of how a small gesture can mean so much. The video of his wave — and the child’s disbelieving, joyful reaction — has gone viral. It's guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
— Home cooking isn’t helping the New York Rangers much these days. They lost the first four games of a nine-game homestand before they rallied for a shootout victory over Calgary on Sunday. They also lost forward Ryan Callahan for four to six weeks because of a knee sprain. Double ouch.
— It was horrifying to see Montreal Canadiens enforcer George Parros, recently back from a concussion, wobbly and needing help after a fight with Eric Boulton of the New York Islanders on Saturday. It might be time for Parros to consider how much longer he can — or should — continue playing.
— Winnipeg fans were so happy to have an NHL team again they ignored the Jets’ faults. The honeymoon is over, hitting a new sour note during a 0-3-3 home streak. “What I say doesn’t matter. It's what you do out on the ice,” forward Blake Wheeler told reporters after a 6-4 loss to Dallas on Saturday. “You can blow smoke as much as you want out in the media; we've been blowing smoke for three years.”