BOSTON (CBS) — Matt Cooke.
The name alone can ignite a flurry of emotions for any hockey fan in Boston, as his hit on Marc Savard nearly two full years ago remains a constant sore subject in the city.
Yet ask those same fans who knocked Nathan Horton out of action less than a month ago, and the results won’t be so clear.
That man is Tom Sestito, and while we can’t yet know the full extent of the damage to Horton, we do know the hit itself was eerily similar to the one put on Savard in March 2010. Horton skated across the top of the faceoff circle and released a shot on net. Sestito stood a good 10 feet from him. Sestito loaded up and used all of his 6-foot-5 frame to hit the 6-foot-2 Horton up high. He succeeded.
Unlike last June, Horton got up from the hit and went right after Sestito, and he stayed in the game for the remainder of the second period before leaving the game. We haven’t seen him since.
There are some explanations for why “Sestito-on-Horton” doesn’t carry the same influence of “Cooke-on-Savard”, the biggest being that it was Horton’s second concussion in eight months. The first, delivered by Aaron Rome in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, was devastating and impossible to forget, so this one may just be seen as an aftereffect of the Rome hit. After all, nobody’s mad at Matt Hunwick for sending Savard off the ice for good.
The other reason, for some at least, is that this particular Flyers-Bruins game took place during the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Ravens. While the diehards were no doubt tuned in to the Bruins, many local sports fans only saw it after the fact when it was posted on YouTube, thereby stripping a good amount of strong emotion from the moment.
Regardless, the hit should have been and should still be bigger news. Horton’s injury didn’t even make the AP game recap that day, and here we are weeks later. He’s been out for nearly a full month, and it’s not getting better. It’s actually getting worse.
“He’s back to square one,” coach Claude Julien said last week. “Those symptoms, once he got on the ice, came back.”
From a hockey standpoint, Horton’s absence is killing the Bruins, who have scored just two goals per game since then (season average is 3.4 goals per game) and whose lines fall into further disarray with Rich Peverley’s knee injury suffered this week.
But obviously, this is much more than a hockey issue. Horton is just 26 years old. He’s the same man who found the strength and courage to will himself to be with the team last June now can’t skate in practice. He can’t travel. We know a whole lot about what he can’t do, but we don’t know what he can do.
That Cooke got off with no punishment was an abomination of justice, but the hit led Colin Campbell and the owners to make changes to ensure that such needless, malicious hits would no longer be a part of the NHL. Brendan Shanahan, in his first year in charge of dishing out the punishments, began suspending players this season for seemingly just having a pulse and a bad look in their eye. If there was one message he made clear in his first four months on the job, it was that the head of any player is off-limits. Whether you make contact with an opponent’s head with your elbow or shoulder, it doesn’t matter. Whether you hit that opponent’s head on purpose of by accident, it doesn’t matter. You hit the head, you get suspended.
So surely, a late, blind-side head shot (to a player with a concussion history, no less) should warrant a heavy penalty in this day and age.
Instead, Sestito skates free. In fact, he wasn’t so much as assessed a minor penalty for the hit, and it was Horton who actually ended up in the penalty box for his retaliation.
Seemingly everyone involved has moved on. The Bruins have moved on, mostly because they have no other choice.
Shanahan’s moved on, ruling fair or foul on dozens of hits since then, and he’s even chimed in with his opinions on hits that didn’t warrant suspension.
“This check by [Brad] Marchand was delivered to the upper thigh/hip and not the knee area,” Shanahan wrote this week regarding Marchand’s hit in Montreal. “We don’t like it, but not [enough to enforce supplemental discipline].”
It’s nice to know Shanahan didn’t like Marchand’s hit, really, but unless he plans on commenting on every single non-suspendable hit in the NHL, he ought to keep those opinions to himself. By offering such opinions on some hits and keeping quiet on others, Shanahan sends a message of implied approval of hits like Sestito’s.
The Flyers have moved on, as has Sestito, who’s proved he’s an honest player by racking up 63 penalty minutes (including two misconducts) since that afternoon affair against Boston.
They’re all moving on, because they all have that ability. Everybody, that is, except for Horton.