he Vancouver Canucks wanted fairness from the National Hockey League, and don’t think they got it.
And that’s understandable, given what’s happened to their players in these playoffs — to Daniel Sedin, blasted into the boards from behind by San Jose’s Ben Eager, and to Aaron Rome, knocked out by a Jamie McGinn hit from behind the very next game — with no consequences to either of the aggressors.
But what’s fair in hockey? Is Nathan Horton lying on his back on the ice of TD Garden fair, his eyes open but unseeing, one lifeless arm held up in the air by some scrambled set of neurons? Is it fair that he’s out of the Stanley Cup final with what the Boston Bruins are calling a severe concussion?
Is it fair the Bruins are missing one of their best forwards, while the Canucks simply plug the next interchangeable No. 5 blueliner into the revolving cast they have used all season?
The criteria NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations Mike Murphy used to determine that Rome, who laid the late hit on Horton early in the first period of Monday’s Game 3, is suspended for four games may not have much to do with fairness under the letter of law — though the law, as interpreted by the NHL disciplinary arm, is so arcane it cannot be understood by mere mortals.
Four games — three more than any suspension ever levied in the history of the Stanley Cup final, including Chris Pronger’s cynical, brutal elbow to the head of Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in the 2007 series — may not be fair, according to precedent.
But let’s not kid ourselves: this had nothing to do with precedent, and plenty to do with the direction in which the game of hockey is moving, against its will.
Gary Bettman wants a harsher standard enforced by Brendan Shanahan, when he takes over from Colin Campbell as the sheriff next season, and Mike Murphy is not immune to the winds of political change.
Like it or not, this was the first cut on the new album.
“I thought it was a late hit. I thought that the body was contacted, but I also thought that the head was hit,” Murphy told a packed house of journalists Tuesday.
“It caused a serious injury to Nathan Horton. So the key components are: the late hit, which I had it close to a second late — we have our own formula at NHL hockey operations for determining late hits, and it was late. And we saw the seriousness of the injury.
“That’s basically what we deliberated on. We tried to compare it with some of the other ones in the past. But it stands alone. It’s why we made the ruling.”
Every aspect of the hit is open to debate. Most of the time, that’s the way these things go. Take, for example, the thoughts of an angry Canucks’ coach Alain Vigneault.
“In my opinion, it’s not the right call,” he said, calling the hits on Sedin, who bounced right up, and Rome, who didn’t, “suspendable offences that weren’t.
“Very unfortunate that hit turned bad. We’re real disappointed the player got hurt. But it was a north-south play. It was a little bit late. But anybody that’s played this game knows that you have to make a decision in a fraction of a second. He’s engaged in the hit. I don’t know how the league could come up with that decision, really.
“I had a coach call me this morning to tell me: ‘Focus on the things that are within your control, and they (the league) are making it up as they go along, so don’t worry about it.
“I don’t feel that way. I think those guys are trying to do the best job they can in very challenging circumstances. But I don’t know what they base their decisions on.”
“I thought it was a late hit. I thought that the body was contacted, but I also thought that the head was hit.” - Mike Murphy
Vigneault defended Rome’s character — clearly, this is one of his favourite players — saying “Aaron isn’t a dirty player, never has been, never will be.”
But that, surely, is irrelevant.
“It does influence you,” said Murphy, whose hearing with Rome lasted 20 minutes. “To what degree, I can’t reveal that. But he was apologetic and contrite. They’re two great qualities, because a series ago Aaron Rome was picking himself up off the ice with a concussion from a hit in a San Jose game.
“I have a lot of compassion for what he said. I did take it to heart. But I don’t think it changed my mind a whole lot.”
“It doesn’t matter what the guy is like,” said Bruins’ Shawn Thornton, who played with Rome in Anaheim in 2006-07.
“Sure, I know Romer. But it doesn’t matter if he’s a great guy off the ice, or if the guy is an ass. The hit is the hit. He made the hit. What kind of guy he is has nothing to do with it.”
The Canuck players who spoke Tuesday felt, to a man, that there should have been no suspension at all, and Vigneault said that players don’t know any more where the line is, because it’s a moving target, influenced by who knows what?
“I think if you’re a player, confusion is obviously part of your vocabulary,” said the coach.
What influenced this decision — four games — beyond the severity of the injury? We’ll never know.
Maybe the league felt it blew the call when it let Raffi Torres get away with a hit to the head of Brent Seabrook in the Chicago series. Maybe the fury it unleashed among Bostonians by not suspending Alex Burrows for his Game 1 bite of Patrice Bergeron’s glove contributed to a cumulative feeling that the Canucks had it coming.
The only element that’s indisputable is the injury to Horton.
And though some feel that calculating a suspension on the severity of injury is a fool’s game, and will only encourage victims of physical contact to lie down and milk the moment, no reasonable person can make the case that Horton wasn’t badly damaged by Rome’s action.
Somehow, some way, some day, all such hits will be subject to stricter discipline — and we’ve waited a long while for that day.
It can’t be just about our player/their player, and “what about that time our guy got hit?”
Rome is, by all accounts, heartbroken.
“I don’t think he could talk to you right now. He’s very emotional. He’s very disappointed,” said Vigneault. “He’s been taken out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A couple of weeks ago, he was almost taken out of the Stanley Cup playoffs by another player in a situation that, in my mind, my opinion, was far worse.”
Vigneault, and all the Canucks, hope Horton gets well soon, but it’s not going to be soon enough for the Bruins, who are expected to plug either Michael Ryder, who has six goals and 18 assists in the playoffs, or Rich Peverley into Horton’s spot on the first line with Milan Lucic and David Krejci.
“There’s no fun to this,” said Murphy. “There’s no enjoyment to this.
“Nobody wins in this. Everybody loses. The fans lose. We lost two good hockey players.”