What happened in Pittsburgh last Saturday has left yet another black mark on the great game of hockey. Both Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik and James Neal’s knee to Brad Marchand’s head were dirty plays which crossed the clear lines of respect all hockey players are supposed to follow, the “unwritten code” we all so often speaks of. (In case you haven’t seen it, click HERE for a video including both incidents)
It is very easy for the anti-fighting fans of hockey to twist Saturday night’s Thornton-Oprik incident into another example of fighting not having a place in the NHL. The problem is that the incident was not a fight: it was an assault. It is unrealistic to imply that this would not have happened if fighting was banned in the NHL. You can ban fights, but you can’t ban the thirst for revenge . Thornton was on a mission to avenge the concussed Loui Eriksson after he was hit by Orpik in the opening minute of the game. One could counter-argue that if Orpik had fought Thornton when he first challenged him, the incident could have just as easily been avoided. But the reality is that Orpik had no obligation to fight, and that’s where it should have ended. Thornton’s actions of slew-footing and punching a defenseless Orpik were unnecessary and uncalled for, and it’s very likely that the NHL department of player safety throws the book at him. He crossed a moral line, and there is no room for that in hockey. However, this should not be come a hill for anti-fighting groups to plant their flag. This was more about a player crossing the line than fighting.
What is being lost in all of this, most likely due to the images of Orpik being stretched off the ice, is the incredibly vicious knee to Marchand’s head, only second’s before Thornton’s attack. Neal, who has been under fire for dirty hits a few times in recent memory (such as these two incidents in the same game), had more than enough time to get out of the way and avoid hitting Marchand. No such attempt was made, and it’s clear in the replay that he angled his leg ever so slightly towards Marchand. The more I look at the video, the harder it is for me to come up with any defense for his heinous acts. A 5-game suspension for such an act I feel is getting off easy. For Neal to have such a lack of respect for a fellow player is far more disturbing than and fight I’ve seen this year.
We hope that what happened in that game will never happen again, but this won’t be aided simply by banning fighting in the NHL. Both of these incidents relate more to a lack of respect between players, something that rules simply can’t change. In a season that has been plagued by blatant head shots and other incidents which involved an intent to injure, it is the culture of the NHL players that needs to change, not the rule book. Respect for one another is the key to improving the poisoned and tainted culture of the NHL.