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Thornton Went After the Wrong Guy

December 8, 2013, 9:57 AM ET [29 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Numerous people have already asked me for my take on the Shawn Thornton incident yesterday in Boston. So here goes. If you didn't see the game or the highlight clips as of yet, here's what happened sequentially:

1) In the first period, Boston's Loui Eriksson had to leave the game after being on receiving end of a big hit from Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik.

2) At the 11:06 mark of the first period, Pittsburgh's James Neal kneed Brad Marchand. There was a stoppage of play.

3) Players from both teams milled around as Marchand was on the ice. Boston's Gregory Campbell jawed with Orpik.

4) Thornton approached the unsuspecting Orpik from behind, slew-footed and pulled him down and then started punching him as he's on the ice. Orpik had to be stretchered off the ice and was hospitalized.

5) Brad Meier and Gord Dwyer assessed a match penalty to Thornton.

6) The NHL has apparently already told the Bruins and Thornton he's having an in-person hearing, so this is going to be a substantial suspension.

My take on this: Thornton went after the wrong guy for the wrong thing.

I did not see anything wrong with Orpik's hit on Eriksson, other than the unfortunate end result. On this play, Eriksson does a a bad job of looking around to see if he can safely play the puck, head down and not a care in the world. Orpik's hit was a clean one.

If that body check was truly the catalyst for why Thornton targeted Orpik after the mid-period stoppage and if this hit is to be classified as a "bad one" then I have only one solution: strip the players of all their equipment, give them sweatpants and a sweater, a stocking cap and woolen mittens. Let the game be no-touch shinny like we played on the ponds when we were kids.

If I had been playing for the Bruins, I'd have had zero problem with the hit. Likewise, if I were refereeing the game, nothing Orpik did would have been a penalty.

Now, as for Neal's knee to Marchand, that was much more egregious. Definitely a penalty and something worthy of a suspension. That is especially true in the light of the fact that Neal has developed a reputation as the worst type of "sneaky dirty" skill player. He is the type who has multiple past instances of dirty play and a couple of suspensions and warnings in his career, yet he and his coach still pleadingly protest about he should get leniency because he's "never been that type of player."

Baloney, James. You ARE that type of player.

There have been numerous times in his NHL career in Dallas and Pittsburgh where Neal has engaged in dirty hits -- from targeting players' heads to hitting from behind to this kneeing incident. Additionally, there is no coincidence that the victims are almost always disliked players on the other side. Marchand is a player who is widely disliked by opposing players as an agitating little rat, so Neal's pattern continued on this play.

Neal deserves to sit a few games. I'd give him three if it was my decision to make as a League disciplinarian.

If I were Thornton, Neal would have been the guy I made a beeline to go after as soon as I could. Can't get at Neal because he tried to sneak off to the bench as quickly as possible? Fine, then skate up to Orpik and challenge him to fight.

Shawn, you're playing in your own barn, anyway. That's the way to handle it as a protector of your teammates. Tap him on the shoulder, drop the gloves and take a step back with fists ready. Orpik really would have little choice but to fight you. But you never, ever slew-foot and sucker a guy on the ice. It's a big-time violation of the Code -- something you have said you believe in following -- and he wasn't even the guy you should have been mad at here.

Thornton's actions against Orpik were cowardly and an utter disgrace to the game. He is going to get suspended for five games at minimum, but I think it will be more substantial than that. I think he gets seven, maybe even 10.

As far as incidents of suckering an unsuspecting player goes, I put this one in a similar category to Toronto's Tie Domi suckering Pittsburgh's Ulf Samuelsson in the mid-1990s. Domi got eight games for that one. Dale Hunter's infamous 1993 playoff sneak attack on Pierre Turgeon after Turgeon scored a goal got Hunter a 21-game unpaid vacation.

Yesterday may have been Dec. 7, but there was no need for Thornton to launch a sneak attack.

I'll be back tomorrow with my take on the Olympic officiating assignments. We'll lighten the mood on Tuesday with some funny stories about longtime NHL player, coach and announcer Terry Crisp. On Thursday, I want to talk about another topic that's an emotionally charged one for me: American referees and linesmen in the NHL. On Friday, I will share some thoughts on former NHL officiating teammates of mine, in honor of Brian Murphy recently working his 1,500th game as an NHL linesman. I worked with Murph in his first.

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Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the only American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials, while also maintaining a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.
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