I would like to start off by saying that the coming words you are about to read are not intended as a defense of the NHL policy and decision makers. Rather, I simply want to try and understand what it is that we are all responding to. I am curious about the ‘why?’ in this situation and want to find answers to it.
The first thing we have to do is ignore the past. I see countless people discussing the Willie Mitchell on Jonathan Toews hit from last year and using it as their basis for making a decision on the league’s ruling of Joe Thornton today. This type of strategy will always lead to further misconception rather than actual understanding since those people are trying to find common ground with an event that had different under lying rules associated with it. Leave the past in the past and let’s focus on where we are heading in the future.
The NHL is taking a stand on shots to the head. Yes, they came out with a definition on what constitutes an ‘illegal’ hit to the head, but we can safely assume that the application of justice in any instance, having any type of hit to the head associated with it, will have inconsistent results. Why? Because the main reason that the NHL is now focusing on this issue is due to the heavy amount of permanent brain damage that these hits cause. This is an undeniable health and image issue for the league. They finally got the message after the Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard.
Sending any player, let alone superstar players, to hospital beds and possible early retirement in no way helps the game. The league finally gets that. We have to applaud them for this because we will no longer have fans who are up in arms crying foul when such offending actions are committed. I am still seething over the Raffi Torres hit on Milan Michalek several years back and I wish the league would have had its head screwed on straight back then. All good things to those who wait, I guess.
With a player’s future health being the main item that they are trying to defend in these cases, the lines will be blurred when we see the league apply justice for such faults.
There is no arguing that Thornton is not a dirty player. There is also no arguing that Thornton and David Perron have a serious height mismatch which sets the stage for funny and poignant comments such as: “…should Joe bend down to hit the guy…” and those points are all valid.
At the end of the day, though, the league is looking to eliminate shots to the head and especially now, at this early stage of applying the rules, where do you think their focus is? Is the league looking to send a message to the players or are they getting into the minute details of every instance? I would put money on the former. Additionally, what better way to send a message to the rest of the league when you can lay a suspension down on a big name player like Thornton?
The league understands the value of making a big statement.
The NHL is not fair and it will likely remain consistently inconsistent both in their on- and off-ice rulings. Fans must understand the details of a certain climate within which these rules are applied, and the current climate is focused on eliminating any type of shot to the head and this is why we are seeing an improper application of justice in this instance.
It seems as though the existing game misconduct should have been enough punishment for Thornton and if not, perhaps at most a one-game suspension, but definitely not two. Clarity will not be a friend to us during these times.
Hits to the head are not acceptable in the early stages of this new rule and players will get hit with a suspension as a result. Thornton is not the first casualty in this instance, and he certainly won’t be the last.