Posted: Mon December 9, 2013 11:00AM; Updated: Tue December 10, 2013 1:20PM
Brian Cazeneuve
Brian Cazeneuve>INSIDE THE NHL

The intersection of the NHL's rules and The Code is a messy place

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If only it were as simple as being able to watch Shawn Thornton's punches to the jaw of the prone Brooks Orpik and lay all the blame for Saturday night's ugly incident on one man. But these are hockey optics -- there is no black and white, especially as the NHL's general managers and other interested parties weigh fighting's place in the game. The parameters between decorum and obligation remain as blurred as ever.

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Thornton, the Bruins' enforcer, doesn't wear a policeman's badge, but he was on the ice against the Penguins to make sure that Orpik, a defenseman with a reputation for thorny play, was held accountable for his jarring first period hit on Boston's Loui Eriksson as Eriksson went to play the puck.

Against that backdrop, and given the Bruins' sweep of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals last spring, emotions were raw in Boston as Thornton chased after Orpik and tried to goad him into dropping the gloves. Orpik didn't oblige and neither did any of the other Penguins, any of whom could have said, "Want to fight? Then fight me." Like it or not, that's The Code in hockey. There comes a time for -- call it what you will -- payback, answering the bell, facing the music. When Orpik and his teammates refused to do that, Thornton, a player of integrity who has fought players of all sizes throughout his career, was one step closer to blowing his top.

Later in the opening period, the knee of Pittsburgh's James Neal happened to hit the head of Brad Marchand, the Bruins' pest, who had fallen to the ice. Neal's explanation: "I need to be more careful and I guess get my knee out of the way, but I'm not trying to hit him in the head or injure him or anything like that."

Both Orpik's hit on Eriksson and Neal's accidentally-on-purpose knee ratcheted up the hostilities. As players and officials gathered after the hit on Marchand, Thornton slew-footed Orpik backward to the ice and connected with two sucker punches that sent the Pittsburgh blueliner to the hospital.

After the game, Thornton's remorse was apparent. "I feel awful," he said after Boston's dramatic, come from behind, 3-2 win. "I felt sick all game ... It's always my job to defend my teammates. But I've prided myself for a long time to stay within the lines. It's hard for me to talk about now. I can't say, I'm sorry, enough. I'm sure I'll be criticized for saying it but it's true. I've heard he's conscious and talking. I'm happy to hear that."

Thornton crossed the line by jumping Orpik, but the line isn't always clear. Earlier this season, on a night when the Capitals were destroying Philadelphia 7-0, the frustrated Flyers began playing pinball with any Washington player who happened to be at hand. It's part of The Code: If you can't beat 'em on the scoreboard, at least scuff 'em up a bit so they pay for embarrassing you. When Philly goalie Ray Emery took off up the ice after Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, who had never before fought, what ensued was all-out assault. If there has ever been a non-willing combatant in this league, it was Holtby, who had no major penalties on his NHL resumé. Ask hockey people and many will quietly make the case that at least by the standards of The Code, Orpik had something coming to him. Holtby did not. Emery's attack was unprovoked and predatory, but he was not suspended, although Brendan Shanahan, the league's senior VP of player safety, lamented the lack of a rule that would have given him grounds for a ban.

In Orpik's case, the line is blurred by where exactly the letter of the NHL's law regarding dangerous, illegal hits intersects with The Code. For Thornton, it is a messy intersection, kind of like Boston's Kenmore Square before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, with about a hundred different ways into and out of the mess. Eriksson left the game with a concussion, but Orpik did not draw a penalty -- though his hit, while clean, certainly seemed to be of the seek-and-destroy variety -- so how does Shanahan call this one? Even if Orpik's hit on Eriksson was legal, couple that incident with Neal's knee to Marchand's head and it was likely that something nasty would follow at some point. Again, The Code.

How much of Shanahan's decision on Thornton will be based on the results of the forward's actions, and how much will be based on intent and context? Oh, and which player will miss the most time as a result of the indiscretions in that game? Boston forward Chris Kelly, who broke his right ankle when he was slashed by the Penguins' Pasqual Dupuis during the second period, will be out for four to six weeks. (Channeling his inner Gregory Campbell, Kelly still played 4:32 in the third period, because, you know, it was only a small break and there are still 200 plus healthy bones in his body.)

As general managers take a renewed look at fighting in the wake of the Emery incident, the concussion suffered by Canadiens enforcer George Parros in his fight with the Maple Leafs' Colton Orr on opening night and now Thornton's attack on Orpik, the question remains: Is brawling a necessary tool for on-ice policing of the game?

As long as fighting remains in hockey, does a player like Orpik have an obligation under The Code to drop his gloves? Or does a failure to do so lead to an awful inevitability (see: Tie Domi's infamous sucker-punch knockout of Ulf Samuelsson, or Todd Bertuzzi's catastrophic hit on Steve Moore, who had refused an earlier invite to scrap)? When does a so-called pest, such as Marchand, have to answer for his transgressions on the ice if the players feel that the league's response may not be enough? Would Neal's knee have struck the head of, say, Patrice Bergeron? Should that matter? Some very good players have been effective in their roles as pests over the years: Ken Linseman, Esa Tikkanen, Sean Avery. Even Hall-of-Famer Bobby Clarke fell into that category, because he rarely dropped the gloves after extracting his stick from an opponent's midsection.

Consider the thoughts of Ian Laperriere, another former member of the Flyers, who began his career as a noted pest with the Blues before he became one of the game's most willing scrappers. "When I started, I would stick and move, you know," Laperriere said in 2010. "That was the way to get the other guy off his game. But then you realize that if you don't stick up for yourself then you're asking your teammates to do it for you. I wasn't comfortable with that. If you lose a fight, well, OK, but if the guy in the dressing room has a bloody nose because you wouldn't do it yourself, then, I don't know. That's why I changed my game."

As for Saturday, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma called Orpik's check, "a good hockey hit." It was close. Eriksson never touched the puck, but he wasn't far from playing it. Did Orpik, with no regard for the puck, line up Eriksson when he was vulnerable or should Eriksson's proximity to the puck have kept the Bruins from attempting to goad Orpik into a fight? Eriksson had already missed time with a concussion after taking a hit in October from the Sabres' John Scott, who was given a seven-game suspension by Shanahan. As for Neal's denial of intent to hit Marchand, will it play better at the NHL offices than it did in the Boston dressing room? (On Monday, Shanahan suspended Neal for five games.)

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"I'm not sure [Thornton] would have done what he did had there not been an incident before," said Boston coach Claude Julien. "Thorny's man enough, he did cross the line ... If he said he really regretted it, he really did. That's more than we can say [for Neal who insisted] it wasn't on purpose."

Had Thornton not nailed Orpik, would the Bruins have gone after Neal, too? Can hockey ever get itself to a place where the formal rulebook aligns with the unspoken rules of The Code?

Both teams can connect the dots in any number of ways to support their players' roles in Saturday's messy game. The dilemma hockey faces is that between the law and The Code to which players adhere.

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