The most interesting thing about Shawn Thornton’s suspension – a stiff 15-game sentence – is what happens next.
Will Thornton accept the penalty (handed to the Boston Bruins forward by NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan on the weekend), do his time and return to the lineup as scheduled on Jan. 11, against the San Jose Sharks?
Or, with the help of the NHL Players’ Association, will he file an appeal to get the suspension for his attack on Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik reduced?
Logically, you’d have to suspect it’ll be the latter – and if so, this may finally be first test of the revamped NHL disciplinary process negotiated in January, coming out of the lockout.
Under terms of the new collective agreement, players were granted the right to appeal any suspension of six games or longer – first, to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and, if that wasn’t successful, to an independent arbitrator.
The NHLPA wanted the system amended because of its belief Bettman shouldn’t be the final word on NHL discipline – and concern he wasn’t likely to meaningfully alter suspensions handed out by the league’s hockey operations department.
Ever since the NHLPA won that right, people have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. It is as if the sides had been warily circling each other through the first one-third of the season, trying to determine when might be the correct time to engage.
For its part, the NHL has been suspending players left and right.
Winnipeg Jets forward Anthony Peluso was the latest target – dinged for three games Sunday for boarding Alex Goligoski.
Peluso’s marked the 20th suspension of the 2013-14 season, but tellingly, only three have been for five games or more.
The only two suspensions that could have been appealed were handed to the Buffalo Sabres twin terrors, Patrick Kaleta and John Scott. Kaleta received 10 games for an illegal hit to the head of the Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Jack Johnson; Scott seven games for doing the same to the luckless Loui Eriksson, the Bruins forward who was injured on a hit by Orpik that ultimately set off Thornton’s rage.
But there was no general outrage about the Kaleta or Scott penalties from the NHL’s rank and file, nor the public at large. Both were repeat offenders. In the end, both accepted their sentences and moved on.
Thornton, however, represents a different sort of transgressor.
He is not considered a cheap-shot artist. Even those on the other side, such as Penguins general manager Ray Shero, acknowledge that.
“Shawn Thornton has been a player throughout his career, through the minors and the NHL, I believe, that has been an honest player,” Shero said last Saturday. “He’s never been suspended before; plays a tough role. I don’t think what happened is what he intended to happen.”
Moreover, Thornton issued an immediate and what sounded like a heartfelt mea culpa – as opposed to the empty, unapologetic apologies some players issue because they feel they have to in the immediate aftermath of doing something stupid.
The Bruins issued a statement following Shanahan’s ruling to the effect that they would support whatever decision Thornton makes, and that Thornton would, in conjunction with the players’ association, consider all his options.
Shanahan, for his part, was unequivocal in his ruling, noting Thornton punched an unsuspecting opponent and caused a serious injury.
“He grabs him by the collar, kicks his feet out and proceeds to throw two short punches at Orpik while he is lying on his back,” Shanahan said in a video explaining his ruling. “This cannot be described as a hockey play that went bad. Nor do we consider this a spontaneous reaction to an incident that just occurred. Rather, it is our view that this was an act of retribution for an incident that occurred earlier in the game.”
There is nothing wishy-washy about the NHL’s response or its interpretation of the matter. It considered it an egregious act and no amount of mitigating circumstances, or suggestions Thornton was sticking up for a teammate, excused his response.