December 15, 2013

Blow to reputation the harshest punishment for Thornton

By Jesse Connolly

On the surface, ranking fourth all-time in any category for a team that’s in its 90th season sounds like a pretty impressive feat. Shawn Thornton was given that distinction Saturday afternoon, but he’d much rather have never made it onto the list at all.

The NHL announced that the veteran Bruins forward had been given a 15-game suspension for his attack on Brooks Orpik during a Dec. 7 game at TD Garden against the Penguins. In nearly a century’s worth of Black and Gold hockey, only three B’s have ever received lengthier bans. Their transgressions aren’t ones you want to be lumped in with.

Eddie Shore was given a 16-game suspension 80 years ago this month when he sucker punched Leafs star Irvine “Ace” Bailey from behind. Bailey never played again. Thirteen years ago, defenseman Marty McSorley was given a 23-game ban for hitting Canucks forward Donald Brashear in the head with his stick. McSorley was convicted of assault. During the 1927 Stanley Cup Final, Billy Coutu earned a lifetime ban after he attacked a referee.

Many will argue that Thornton’s punishment was too severe. The facts are certainly there to support their case.

Since making his NHL debut for the Blackhawks during the 2002-03 season, Thornton never once received supplementary discipline for any of his actions through the first 521 games of his career in the league, which saw him rack up nearly 900 minutes in penalties. Despite all those trips to the sin bin, Thornton never crossed the line. That's pretty remarkable for a guy who's served in the same oft-thankless role as resident pugilist throughout that time.

Thornton is paid to do more than just drop the gloves, but ultimately his primary job is to be the Bruins’ on-ice policeman. On Dec. 7, however, the 36-year-old, code-abiding forward was the law-breaker in game No. 522.

No matter how clean Thornton’s record was, and no matter how genuine his expression of remorse was, his actions were indefensible. They were heinous. They were shocking. And for those cognizant of what kind of a human being the two-time Stanley Cup champion is, they were a major punch to the gut.

Thornton’s long prided himself in carrying himself with dignity at the rink. He’s earned the respect of teammates, coaches, opposing players and opposing coaches during his time in the pro ranks. He’s also earned plenty of admiration for his actions off the ice. Thornton might not wear a letter above the Spoked-B on the front of his jersey, but he’s become Captain Community since arriving in Boston in the summer of 2007.

A two-time recipient of the Community Service Award during his days with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, Thornton highlighted a number of charities he was involved with when he spoke with New England Hockey Journal in August 2012.

Thornton works with Athletes for Heroes, which supports children of fallen or severely injured servicemen and women, firefighters, police officers and ordinary citizens who risk their lives to save another. He’s involved with the Claddagh Fund, which raises money for the most underfunded, nonprofit organizations that support vulnerable populations in our communities.

Then there’s Cuts for a Cause, which raises money to help children battling cancer, as well as Putts and Punches for Parkinson’s, a golf tournament that sees all of its proceeds benefit the Boston Bruins Foundation and the American Parkinson Disease Association.

Now a year-round resident of Charlestown, Thornton has become a pillar in the Boston community through his inspirational deeds. His role as a fan favorite goes hand-in-hand.

Add that all up and it’s no surprise that many opinions expressed throughout New England about Thornton over the past eight days -- be it his actions or his punishment -- have come from many thinking less with their heads and more with their hearts.

As the debate rages on about what level of wrongdoing Thornton reached when he slew-footed Orpik and delivered two punches that left him unconscious, it seems necessary to remind the ever-contentious hockey world that it’s possible to hate what Thornton did without condemning his entire existence, just as an illustration of his strong character isn’t to be confused with a defense of No. 22’s behavior that night on Causeway Street.

Hockey fans have been pining for the book to finally be thrown at a player for crossing the line, especially this season, when the pro- and anti-fighting crowds have been passionately bickering back and forth. A slew of what are essentially “hockey plays” -- open-ice hits, checks along the boards -- have yielded short suspensions this season, but what happened between Thornton and Orpik was no hockey play. It was an assault, and an inexcusable one at that, giving the NHL a golden chance to come down hard and send a message.

Ten games seemed both deserved and symbolic: long enough to appease the masses and send a warning to the rest of the league, and a fitting punishment for a first-time offender who appeared overcome by temporary insanity in the heat of the moment. Brendan Shanahan and Co. went 50 percent beyond the double-digit threshold. As such, Thornton -- barring a successful appeal, which he hasn’t elected to pursue yet -- will be out for a total of 15 games. He’s served four already, meaning he could return Jan. 11 when the Bruins visit the Sharks.

Shawn Thornton receives the Eddie Shore Award -- for exceptional hustle and grit -- in 2011. (Getty Images)

As far as the calendar goes, that’s a total of precisely five weeks that Boston will be without Thornton’s services. That’s 35 days the emotional leader of the Merlot Line will be sporting a suit when his teammates suit up for battle.

However, the black mark this puts on Thornton’s reputation will linger for a while longer. Given that even he’d admit he’s well into the back nine of his playing days, that’s a tough pill to swallow for someone so vocal, and so true to his word until the first period on Dec. 7, about playing the game the right way.

As hokey as it sounded, “the code” was seemingly part of Thornton’s DNA. Sure, it was essentially just a conversation piece, a way of rolling integrity, dignity, honor, and all those other good-guy characteristics into one simple term, but it was still a point of pride for someone that put respect for his opponents, his combatants, his team and the game itself above anything else.

When Thornton returns to Boston’s lineup in January, he will approach the game the way he always has. He will have served his time and earned his reinstatement, but his reckless behavior that night against Pittsburgh has created a false perception that many will struggle to shake -- if ever at all.

Shawn Thornton isn’t a punk. Shawn Thornton isn’t a malicious cheap-shot artist. Shawn Thornton isn’t a bad guy.

But what Shawn Thornton did to Brooks Orpik earlier this month -- no matter how out of character -- was unjustifiably barbaric and an appalling display of tactlessness. Was it on par with Coutu’s attacking of a referee, or with McSorley’s attempt to treat an opponent’s head like a piñata? Not quite, but it’s not too far behind.

Such senseless and dangerous behavior has consequences.

For the victim, Orpik, it was a concussion, costing his team their top defender for the time being and himself a possible spot on the U.S. Olympic roster.

For Thornton, it’s not just waiting another four weeks until he gets to play in a hockey game again. It’s having to live with the fact that one bad decision has dealt a damaging blow to a reputation he’s spent over a dozen years building, and earning, as a pro hockey player.

For someone that approaches hockey and life as a whole the way Thornton does, there’s no greater punishment than that.

Photos: Getty Images

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ