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Instant column: NHL declares open season for assaults

By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media

So Shawn Thornton got 15 games for criminally assaulting Brooks Orpik.

That’ll prompt all kinds of gnashing of teeth and parsing over precedents and comparisons to events to which this particular penalty has no actual resemblance. Meaning that it wasn’t in any way shape or form a hockey play. It was a blindside attack during a stoppage on an unsuspecting player, who was then slew-footed to the ice, then punched twice, including at least once while already unconscious.

Good luck compiling a meaningful list of precedents for that.

It’s sickening, but it’s also sickeningly predictable. That’s the no-guts NHL of Gary Bettman and Brendan Shanahan. Wait as long as possible to make a ruling, hoping some of the anger dies down and Oprah stops calling, then put out a sentence that very carefully massages both sides, not just the guilty one. Wouldn’t want to stir the pot.

The Penguins thought maybe 20?

The Bruins thought maybe 10?

Hey, let’s go 15!

Here’s what I take from it: If I’m an NHL general manager and I’m completely ruthless — oh, they exist — and I really want to take out an opposing player, or even just give them the scare of a lifetime, I’m calling up some random thug from the minor leagues today. From there, I’m sending that thug after Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin or some other star, and I’m having them do exactly what Thornton did to Orpik. Step for step, slew for slew, slug for slug.

Because that thug, who means nothing to me, will get 15 games. And my team will get nothing. And my hated opponent will be without their star for … hey, maybe forever!

Over the top?

Not for anyone who remembers the Islanders calling up their entire minor-league affiliate for that Long Island massacre a couple years ago. It can and will happen. And the NHL apparently will be content to penalize said player with 15 games, said team with nothing at all.

Not fair to compare with Thornton, who is allegedly a really swell guy who delivered a really heartfelt apology?

Wow, people are actually bringing that up right now. As if that means a whit. As if the greater concern here is possibly not doing right by nice guys who assault people as opposed to setting a real and meaningful precedent against the actual assault.

Sensational logic there, huh?

Maybe it’s worth another look, in case the NHL succeeded in desensitizing some by holding off so long on a ruling …

You know, I could do this all day, you could do this all day, and I’m sure the broader hockey media will have a field day over it. Pittsburgh fans will think it’s too lenient. Boston fans will cite James Neal and Brad Marchand and Matt Cooke and Marc Savard and probably Bill Buckner, too, and anything else that they can to distract from the assault, which isn’t comparable to any of those save, of course, for Buckner’s assault on New Englanders’ psyche. Most of the rest of the hockey world will do little more than look at where this suspension ranks on the list with all the others.

But that’s the problem: This wasn’t like the others. This was like Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore, and absolutely nothing else in recent NHL history, and Bertuzzi got 20 games even though his assault at least happened during play. This wasn’t about dealing specifically with Thornton. It was about dealing with the act.

That’s how it should have been treated, had anyone in charge been more concerned about preventing a repeat as opposed to trying to stir up as little controversy as possible on a Saturday afternoon. Oh, and let’s issue a suspension that has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not Orpik returns, just so this can be over and done in as tidy a manner as possible.

Let’s check back on this topic when someone dies.

UPDATE 4:13 p.m.: Here is the official suspension video from the ironically named NHL Player Safety department, courtesy of Shanahan.

This might be the saddest statement of all. Blow by blow, Shanahan takes us through a powerfully accurate accounting of the entire incident, with at least one angle I hadn’t previously seen that made it look so flagrantly premeditated. It moves, it rattles, it disturbs … and then it ends with Bettman and Shanahan taking the cowards’ route and turning away.

Here’s the Trib’s news coverage, from Josh Yohe in Detroit.

The big winner today: Concussion lawyers everywhere!

Have at it, gentlemen. The NHL just cast down the gauntlet today.

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Author: Dejan Kovacevic

Dejan Kovacevic, a lifelong Pittsburgher, is an award-winning sports columnist for Trib Total Media covering the Steelers, Penguins, Pirates, Pitt and, recently, his fourth Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He also appears on WPXI-TV's 'Subway Final Word’ and hosts a weekly show on TribLIVE Radio. For 2011, he was named one of the country's top four columnists by the AP Sports Editors. For 2012, he was named one of the country's top three columnists by the National Headliners. For 2013, he was named the state's top columnist by the Keystone Press Awards and top columnist in Western Pennsylvania by the Golden Quills.

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