Top Shelf: NHL has a chance to make example of Thornton

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Updated: 12/10/2013 2:53 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - When Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton finally sits down for his disciplinary hearing with the league on Friday, nearly a week will have passed since the Bruins forward made his regrettable decision to physically assault an unsuspecting Brooks Orpik.

So, the justice Thornton receives for his ugly behavior in last Saturday's win over Pittsburgh won't exactly be swift, but hopefully, the extra time is being used to make sure the punishment fits the crime.

Thornton wasn't the only person who displayed poor decision-making skills in the physical battle in Boston. Pittsburgh's James Neal received a five-game suspension Monday for kneeing Bruins forward Brad Marchand in the head, an unfortunate play that ultimately led to an even worse transgression by Thornton.

Although it was fairly obvious Neal intentionally skated into a fallen Marchand, the Penguins forward decided to play the innocent babe-in-the-woods in his post-game comments about the play. Thornton, however, had no choice but to cop to his own thuggish behavior.

Unlike Neal's more subtle play, there was no way to see Thornton's actions as anything but a clear crossing of the line that veered dangerously into the realm of blatant goonery.

During a scrum which was created by Neal's kneeing of a prone Marchand with 8:54 remaining in the first period, Thornton grabbed Orpik from behind and punched him twice, the second time as the veteran blueliner was on the ice.

Although the punches Thornton threw didn't initially appear to be of the heavy-hitting variety, it was soon obvious that the surprise blows did serious damage to an unsuspecting Orpik. The Penguins defenseman laid motionless on the ice, as his teammates waved frantically to help from the bench. Some time later, Orpik was carried off the ice on a stretcher, as the hockey world held its collective breath.

In addition to Neal's knee on Marchand, Thornton also was angry about Orpik's clean but hard hit laid on his Boston teammate Loui Eriksson from earlier in the game, a collision that resulted in a concussion for Eriksson. Either way, neither situation warranted the response that Thornton had in store for Orpik.

By the time Thornton spoke about what transpired news had come down that Orpik was conscious and talking at a local hospital. Still, the Penguin was left concussed and Thornton did his best to own up to the consequences created by his foolish actions.

"I feel awful," Thornton said after the game. "It wasn't my intention for that outcome. I know Brooksie. I've gotten to know him over the last seven years here. I skate with him in the summer and through the lockout. I've texted him a couple times. I feel awful. It's not what I wanted to see or what anybody wanted to see.

"It's always my job to defend my teammates. I've prided myself for a long time to stay within the lines. It's hard for me to talk about it right now. I can't say I'm sorry enough. I'm sure I'll be criticized for saying it but it's true."

However, being contrite won't save Thornton from a lengthy suspension, and it shouldn't. Since he is being forced to have an in-person hearing with the league, it's almost a certainty that Thornton will receive a suspension of six games or longer from NHL head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, but it's still hard to gauge exactly how long this particular "Shanaban" will be.

Although prior suspensions are usually a key factor in determining how stringent a punishment should be, the fact that Thornton has never been suspended should be tossed out the window in this case. At some point, Shanahan needs to step away from the protocol and try to make an example of someone. The Thornton situation offers a clear chance to do that, whether Shanahan actually will utilize this opportunity to try and effect positive change in the world of hockey is another matter entirely.

Even if Shanahan believes a lengthier suspension for Thornton wouldn't be a successful deterrent to future violent acts, he should still throw the book at the Bruins enforcer. Thornton's sucker punches on Orpik were the actions of guy who lost completely control of himself and gave into blind rage, and one would hope Shanahan believes that has absolutely no place in this sport.

Although what Thornton did wasn't as bad as the infamous Todd Bertuzzi episode, it's not all that far off. When Bertuzzi, then a member of the Vancouver Canucks, ended the career of Colorado's Steve Moore with an attack from behind during the 2003-04 season, it was a horrifying spectacle and Thornton's display on Saturday may be the NHL's ugliest on-ice incident since then.

The main connection between the two instances is that like Bertuzzi before him, Thornton's actions had nothing to do with hockey. It was all about revenge for a perceived slight. Unlike Moore, Orpik fortunately stands a solid chance at making a full recovery and returning to the NHL. Still, whether he's back in a week or months from now, Thornton's punishment should be based on how irresponsibly he acted, not how many games Orpik missed due to those thoughtless actions.

Although the lockout of 2004-05 kept Bertuzzi away from the game for 17 months following the Moore incident, his suspension wound up being for a total of 20 games, which was the fourth-longest ban at the time. Presently, when concussions and head/neck injuries have become an even bigger concern than they were in 2004, it doesn't seem like the Bertuzzi suspension was nearly enough.

Also, if Raffi Torres received 21 games (it was 25 before a successful appeal) for his high hit to the head of Chicago's Marian Hossa during the 2012 playoffs, the sky should be the limit for Thornton's ban. Torres, who was a member of the Phoenix Coyotes at the time, hit Hossa late with an irresponsible hit, but it was still part of the natural flow of the game.

Thornton, however, committed an act of retribution during a stoppage of play, taking matters into his own hands as he doled out punishment to right perceived wrongs perpetrated against his teammates.

It's now up to Shanahan to make it a point to demonstrate how vigilante justice has no place in the NHL. If he has to put pieces of paper numbered 50- to-100 in a hat and pick one of them out to determine Thornton's suspension, that would be fine by me. The punishment needs to be that outrageous if there is any chance of getting through to players like Thornton that what happened on Saturday can never happen again.

However, in light of his previous rulings it seems likely that Shanahan will tow the line and try to come up with a "fair" number. That would be unfortunate. This is a prime opportunity to throw the book at a guy and send a message to the rest of the league that there is a line that cannot be crossed.

Thornton crossed it, and he should have to pay dearly so the next guy thinks twice before taking the same regrettable step.

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