The NHL has long had a discipline problem and it once again reared its ugly head on Saturday night when the Bruins and the Penguins were playing in Boston. There were two separate incidences that left hockey fans disgusted with the game, again. Time and time again we are left aghast at what has just happened on the ice, but we continue to watch the league that doesn't do enough to stop it. And sometimes we even support the violence.
The lack of discipline system reared it's ugly head on Saturday night. While I was watching the Jets play the Lightning, ugliness began to fill the Bruins/Penguins game in Boston. James Neal decided to knee Brad Marchand in the head and then after a hit that may have been late was delivered by Brooks Orpik on Louis Ericsson, Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton attempted to fight Orpik. Orpik refused to fight Thornton and in a bout of rage Thornton slew footed Orpik to the ice and punched him until he was unconscious. It was ugly and wrong, yet people still defend Thornton's actions as a needed response to a mostly clean hit.
I was watching a different Jets game last Thursday and was reading Twitter for updates on the Habs/Bruins game when a bunch of tweets came in about Johnny Boychuk and a tough hit he absorbed from Max Pacioretty. The general consensus was that the hit was at worse a two minute minor and that hopefully Boychuk was okay, the stretcher only a precautionary measure. I decided to search Pacioretty's name on Twitter and I came across numerous people wanting Zdeno Chara to hit him into a stanchion again, an incident that left Pacioretty with a broken neck and severe concussion in March of 2011. If the first response to a questionable play is to wish severe injury onto another player, there is a problem. So when I was reading replies to journalists I follow while they talked about the problems in hockey that led to Thornton's response. Some people tried to justify it, saying that what he did to Orpik when Thornton's attack on Orpik was not a fight, it was an attack. The fact that some fans are comfortable defending what Thornton did says a lot about the culture surrounding the game that we consume.
Even worse was the way some journalists in Boston reacted to the events that transpired on Saturday night. Though many were quick to condemn but some of the media paid to cover the Bruins instead decided to defend Thornton's actions. Joe Haggerty, who is considered by many fans to be one of the worst journalists to cover the game said "Orpik will undoubtedly return to good health in time, and then continue to take runs at opponents without even a hint of attempting to answer for those hits should characters like Thornton come calling." Responses like that are what helps set the game back. Fighting is not the answer to questionable hits. Orpik was called a coward by another Boston journalist, Stephen Harris. Reporters supported Thornton because he acted remorseful for what he did, but were outraged when James Neal said the same thing the next day. The victimizing of some of the perpetrators is shocking. They have done the crime and are responsible for their actions, no matter how they react when they are surrounded by microphones. But no matter how fans and media react when ugly incidences take place, the real responsibility lies with the league.
Referees calling penalties and the Department of Player Safety suspending players for all questionable hits, not just some of them helps change the culture. But the culture of the fans that consume the game and the media that covers it, that has to come from within. The expectation should never be for a player to be injured. Hating a player is awesome in a rivalry as long as it is understood that players are humans and they have lives outside of hockey. If we constantly want players on opposing teams to be injured to be injured than what good are we. We are simply complacent, supporting a league that does not do enough to stop the violence, reading reporters that talk about how the rats will take over if fighting is gone. Rats will always exist in a league where penalties are not called due to the the score of the game. Rats will exist as long as we laugh at Brad Marchand punching one of the Sedin twins repeatedly without any consequence to speak of. It is the referees job to deal with the crap in the game, not players.
Suspensions are an even bigger problem than penalties. No one, including players, know what constitutes a suspension anymore, leaving many confused. Not all head shots are looked at, never mind suspended. Because the NHL weighs prior discipline into the equation for each suspension means that for a player to receive their first suspension the incident has to bad or they have to have been spoken to by the league prior to their initial suspension. There needs to be a minimum that makes it obvious to players what the consequences are for each bad hit. There still needs to be room for human error and every hit that falls into the suspension criteria should be reviewed for that error, but to needs to feel like there is a formula being used, not someone throwing darts at a board.
I think that Neal's suspension should have been longer. What he did was wrong and he was rightfully punished. I have no opinion on the length of Thornton's suspension except to say anything less than the season is too short for me. I say this as newer fan who does not watch hockey for the fighting but for the skill. Give me Andrei Markov and Tobias Enstrom over Mark Stuart and Chris Thorburn any day. Hockey can be a beautiful game is we all agree that we can be better fans and be objective when needed, that we can hold our personal admiration for a player out of a story about an assault on ice, and the league has to do a better job at disciplining it's players, both during and after games.