Shawn Thornton suspension upheld by NHL; does Bettman’s appeal ruling validate 15-game ban?

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday upheld the League’s 15-game suspension to Boston Bruins winger Shawn Thornton for his Dec. 7 attack on Brooks Orpik of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Thornton and the NHLPA appealed the ruling on Dec. 14.

The NHLPA’s case was focused on reducing the suspension, but it never argued that the incident itself wasn’t “harmful” and that it didn’t result in a “significant” injury to Orpik. Their argument on behalf of Thornton was that he had played more than 500 games with any supplemental discipline; that Brendan Shanahan’s conclusion that this was “not a hockey play” was incorrect; and that comparable cases to that of Thornton resulted in shorter-term suspensions.

The NHLPA felt 10-12 games was more appropriate.

Here's the ruling:

Bettman’s counter-arguments:

1. Thornton’s clean record was acknowledged and factored into the 15-game suspension decision. Which is a bit theoretical on the League’s part, in the sense that the NHLPA is forced to accept that it could have been much, much worse had he had a “dirty” record. (How much worse? How many more games? Only the NHL knows, or suggests it knows.)

Overall, that clean record doesn’t supersede the other requirements for a suspension such as player injury and intent.

When it comes to intent, the NHL pummeled Thornton for claiming in the appeal that he was just looking for the “biggest player” to assault and that just happened to be Orpik, despite Pascal Dupuis (all of one inch shorter) standing there too. Plus, Thornton had already told the league in his suspension hearing that he skated over to confront Orpik. Bettman nailed Thornton on this one, and claimed that premeditation speaks to the 15 suspension’s validity: "I find that Mr. Thornton’s unwillingness to acknowledge an obvious motivation (if not the only obvious motivation) for his conduct is an aggravating circumstance."

2. Bettman countered the “hockey play” notion by noting it was an attack after the whistle. Which is pretty much an open and shut argument against the NHLPA’s claim.

3. Bettman rejected the precedents that the NHLPA put forth because they didn’t perfectly square up with the characteristics of Thornton’s attack on Orpik. From the appeal ruling:

“Like Mr. Shanahan, I find that many of the ‘comparable’ incidents identified by the NHLPA (prior to the hearing and then through the testimony of Mr. Chiarelli) are distinguishable from Mr. Thornton’s conduct because they lack one or more of the elements described above. Indeed, as the Union, Mr. Chiarelli and Mr. Shanahan explained during the appeal hearing, each of those incidents lacked one of the elements present here. Some of the incidents involved infractions arguably committed during or in connection with a hockey play; some involved conduct that did not involve premeditation or an ambush of a defenseless and unsuspecting Player; and others did not result in any serious injury causing the other Player to miss games.”

Bettman then cites these examples as evidence in favor of the ruling:

“A twenty-one (21) game suspension to Dale Hunter (for his unprovoked run at Pierre Turgeon from behind after the play in 1993); a twelve (12) game suspension to Matt Johnson (for punching Jeff Beukeboom from behind during the play in 1998); and an eighteen (18) month suspension to Todd Bertuzzi (for punching and tackling Steve Moore from behind during the play in 2004).”

Here’s where his otherwise convincing ruling stumbles a bit.

Hunter was a repeat offender. Johnson was a repeat offender. Bertuzzi was a repeat offender.

While the situations may be closer to what Thornton did, the perpetrators aren’t. Frankly, for a ruling that has such specificity, the fact that Bettman waved away the NHLPA’s comparable incidents while entering into evidence three of his own is specious. At least as they're presented in this public document.

That isn’t to say that they NHLPA’s “comparable incidents” would get Thornton out of his 15 games. It’s just odd that when discussing those incidents in light of the NHLPA’s appeal, Bettman treats every suspension like a snowflake … before naming three suspensions he feels are in sync with the 15 games given to Thornton, yet involve repeat offenders.

Overall, Bettman’s ruling does an effective job in establishing Thornton’s intent and reiterating how this was far from being a “hockey play.” (Although how one defines that can be intriguing; Chris Simon’s skate-stomp on Jarkko Ruutu happened between the whistles, but was that in any way a “hockey play”?)

But does it make you believe that 15 games for a first-time offender was warranted? That's the issue.

The NHLPA opted not to take Patrick Kaleta’s case to the independent arbitrator. One wonders if they feel this case is a better one to push the distance. Again, 15 games for Thornton makes sense, given his intent and the injury. But did the NHL do enough here to justify it?