When the code breaks down in the NHL, things get ugly

Even though everyone acted according to the code, the situation still went awry. Photo: AP photo

SANTA CRUZ, Calif., December 14, 2013 — Saturday night’s Penguins/Bruins match up should have been a compelling showdown between two Eastern Conference powerhouses. The game wound up being memorable for all the wrong reasons, and has again forced hockey fans to come to grips with the ugly violence lurking beneath the surface of their game.

Perhaps the most difficult part in processing the events from Boston is that there appears to be no easy scapegoat, no clear villain to point our collective finger at. Hockey’s celebrated code of conduct, enforced by the players themselves, failed utterly to make anything right.


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In hockey, there is a cause and effect regarding events on the ice. When Brooks Orpik leveled Loui Eriksson, everyone in the building knew there would be a measured response. Orpiks’ hit, while legal, was vicious, and inflicted on a player with a history of concussions. To make matters worse, it turns out Ericksson never touched the puck.

Eriksson was forced to leave the game, concussed yet again, and so Bruins head coach Claude Julien responded as most coaches would, by sending Shawn Thornton over the boards to confront Orpik and demand accountability for injuring one of the Bruins skill guys. Thornton slashed and shoved Orpik, trying to engage him in a fight, but Orpik declined the invitation. 

Not long after, Penguins forward James Neal was skating by the Bruins’ Brad Marchand, who was prone on the ice after a previous hit. Marchand is roundly despised by opponents around the league, and Neal has a reputation for the occasional dirty play. As Neal skated by, he turned his left leg just enough to strike Marchand squarely in the head with his knee as he headed up ice. The on ice officials never saw it, but the Bruins bench most surely did. 

Things finally escalated to their ugly finale when, as players were forming a scrum during a stoppage of play, Thornton snuck up behind Orpik, slew-footed him to the ice and began raining down punches to Orpik’s head, one of which knocked Orpik unconscious. Orpik was stretchered off the ice and transported to a local hospital where it was reported he had suffered a concussion.


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According to hockey’s admittedly ambiguous code, everybody did everything right, and yet the outcome was so sickening as to defy justification. In hockey, if a player runs around (hockey speak for taking liberties with the opponents’ smaller or more skilled players), a coach will send out their enforcer, tough guy, or whatever the politically correct term is these days for that type of player, to exact justice. This player will challenge the offending player to a fight, or run a smaller player on that team. Once this is accomplished, the game moves on, justice having been served.

What transpired Saturday night in Boston was an unraveling of the code, exposing the unpredictability of the game’s spontaneous violence. It can be assumed that Orpiks intent was not to concuss Eriksson, but merely to separate him from a puck which, unfortunately, never reached him. Orpik has a reputation as a hard hitter, but not a particularly dirty one.

Similarly, Shawn Thornton did not seek out Orpik with the intent of sending him to the hospital on a stretcher, he was just doing his job, protecting his teammates, and seeking the appropriate retribution. Thornton, after the game, admitted he felt sickened by the outcome of his actions.

The only player who was really out of bounds was Neal, with the cheap knee to the head of an unsuspecting player. Marchand, though he plays on the edge and is despised league wide, had not committed any transgressions during this particular game. Neal will miss five games for his crimes, Thornton will likely miss several more, and the returns of Eriksson and Orpik are unknown. 

Some will blame Claude Julien for sending Thornton out to go after Orpik. The fact is that every coach in the league would have responded identically in the same situation. Others will point to Thornton, and all players of his ilk. They decry violence as a method of real time retribution and believe it has no place in the game. Thornton took things too far and, in so doing, raised the volume of the anti-fighting contingent by several decibels, but Shawn Thornton is not the problem.

Had Orpik been penalized for interference when he hit Eriksson, and sent to the penalty box, Thornton would have had to wait to go after him and, by then, emotions may well have cooled. Eriksson never touched the puck, so while Orpik’s hit was clean (as hits go), it was definitely interference. Further, had one of the four on ice officials seen Neal’s knee to the head of Marchand, Neal could have gotten anything from a two minute roughing penalty to an intent to injure match penalty and been thrown out of the game. When referees fail to suck the toxic air out of heated, competitive games, a violent momentum begins to build, which can lead to outcomes like Saturdays.

Ultimately, there is no clear cut villain in a game which featured one unfortunate incident and two ugly ones. Except for Neal, the argument could be made that all parties acted properly, in light of the code. When even legendary Bruins apologist, play by play announcer (and undisputed heavyweight champion of media homerism) Jack Edwards, squinting desperately through his black and gold colored glasses, found himself unable to paint Thornton’s attack as justified, it was clear this was no ordinary game.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.


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Russ Rankin

Raised in the decidedly non-traditional hockey region of Santa Cruz, California, Russ Rankin fell in love with the game as a kid while watching the "Miracle On Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He began playing recreationally as an adult when the Sharks joined the NHL in nearby San Jose and regularly attends Sharks home games. His favorite NHL team is the New Jersey Devils, which he has been following since the 1987-88 season. In 2007, with more and more U.S. born players (particularly from California) making an impact in the WHL, Rankin pursued his passion and knowledge of the game into a job scouting California for WHL clubs. He can be seen at rinks all over the state searching for the next great crop of players.

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