During the Nashville broadcast of the game against San Jose Saturday night, the Predators broadcasters showed each of the four goals Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl scored against the New York Rangers early in the season. After marveling at the skill level Hertl showed on his fourth goal, where he roofed the puck after putting it between his legs, Predators broadcaster Terry Crisp felt he had to give Hertl some valuable advice.
“Let me tell you young man,” Crisp said. “You pull that move too often and somebody’s going to want retribution on you.”
It boggles the mind how the hockey establishment thinks sometimes. Crisp’s comments came just hours after the NHL handed down a 15-game suspension to Shawn Thornton, essentially for taking out his own form of retribution on Brooks Orpik exactly one week earlier.
“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,” NHL vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan said in his ruling. “It is our view that this was an act of retribution for an incident that occurred earlier in the game, the result of this action by Thornton was a serious injury to Orpik.”
It seems to me that perhaps the culture of violence isn’t the only problem the NHL faces these days. In fact, it’s the culture of revenge that makes the NHL such a dangerous place to work. Thornton, who is supposed to be one of those honest players who keeps everyone safe, was hell-bent on avenging an Oprik hit on Loui Eriksson earlier in the game.
I’m not sure exactly what it is about the NHL, but it’s an environment that is unlike any other league in this respect. In professional hockey, every single affront, every threat to manhood, either real or perceived, has to be answered decisively and with an iron fist. Teams feed on it like oxygen. Nobody does bulletin board material like hockey players do.
How many times have we heard players talk about, “sending a message?” If you hit a star player, whether that hit is clean or dirty, then the code demands you stand up for yourself and fight the way Orpik was supposed to do. If you’re a hot dog, you expose yourself to being brought down a couple of notches. If you spray snow in a goaltender’s face, you’ve pretty much guaranteed yourself a mugging. If you chirp about your opponent’s mother wearing military footwear, well, that’s a matter of honor that must be absolutely addressed.
(It does happen in baseball, where players have been using fastballs to police themselves since the beginning of time. But it doesn’t happen near as much and the big difference is a pitcher is kicked out of the game if he intentionally hits a batter after being warned by the umpire.)
And it’s this obsession with revenge that ends up creating all kinds of mayhem. Take the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident, for example. That happened because of what the Canucks believed was a dirty hit by Moore on Vancouver star Markus Naslund. And it goes way further back than that. Eighty years ago last Thursday, Eddie Shore ended the career of Toronto Maple Leafs star Ace Bailey, initially thinking Bailey was King Clancy, who had been irritating him all game. Shore attacked Bailey from behind and hit him so hard that Bailey crashed head first and suffered a near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
I recall when I covered the Leafs for the Toronto Star, Mats Sundin received a one-game suspension in 2004 for throwing a broken stick into the crowd. Not long after that, the Ottawa Senators were in Toronto and Daniel Alfredsson broke his stick, then motioned as though he was going to throw it into the crowd. When Sundin saw Alfredsson at the All-Star Game later that year, the two Swedes enjoyed a good laugh over it. But after the game the Leafs, and Tie Domi in particular, were livid about it and were swearing they would get revenge on Alfredsson the next time they played.
Three years prior, Domi drilled his elbow into Scott Niedermayer’s head during the Maple Leafs second-round series with the New Jersey Devils, Domi later said as a means of getting back at Niedermayer for past incidents. The elbow cost Domi the rest of the playoffs and might have cost the Leafs a trip to the Eastern Conference final. The incident occurred late in Game 4, a game in which the Leafs tied the series. Domi, in fact, had been the better player in the series to that point.
Now Thornton finds himself in much the same situation as his former idol Domi, with a lot of time on his hands to think about his actions. It was interesting that Shanahan went to great lengths to point out that what made Thornton’s action so reprehensible was that it was done in revenge. On the one hand, though, you can’t really blame Thornton. Players have long believed that in order to even things up, they have to take matters into their own hands because the league isn’t going to do that. Well, the NHL just did, sending a message of its own, and we can only hope the players got it this time.