WILMINGTON (CBS) – Shawn Thornton was looking out for his teammates Tuesday.
Although the Bruins forward hasn’t suited up since he was suspended for his actions against Brooks Orpik against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 7, his decision to drop his appeal and not pursue a decision from an independent arbitrator was mostly done because Thornton’s ready to move on and he doesn’t want his troubles to trickle down to his teammates while his 15-game suspension winds down.
“With the timing of the whole thing, by the time we got an appointment with the arbitrator, by the time the ruling came back, it might’ve been too late to save actual games anyways. It’s been a long process and quite honest, to save a couple bucks, I’d rather not be a distraction around here and I’d rather just focus on getting ready for January 11,” Thornton said after he took part in the Bruins’ morning skate Tuesday at Ristuccia Arena. “It’s 12 days out now. Eleven or 12 days out. I’m not going to lie to you, it wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve been thinking about it for the last 36 hours. Not much sleep. But I feel for the team it’s probably the right thing to do I guess at this point, not going through the whole process again a third time.”
And so begins Thornton’s attempt to put the incident and its aftermath in the past, even though he’s more than $84,000 lighter in the wallet. It’s the right move for so many reasons. Sure, it makes sure that the team and organization won’t be answering many more questions about the incident and the appeal process right up until is scheduled return to action Jan. 11 in San Jose. We saw how much of a drain it was when the Bruins had to answer for Tim Thomas’ distractions, and when other players over the years (Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin) have brought unnecessary topics of conversation into the room. With Thornton unable to speak on his own behalf while the appeal process unfolded, things could’ve gotten awkward.
But this decision also begins to rebuild his reputation as respectful player deserving of others’ respect. The sight of Thornton slew footing Orpik and then punching the Penguins defenseman while he was down was a black eye for the sport, the Bruins organization and Thornton. However, it doesn’t appear that among his peers Thornton’s reputation as an honest player has been diminished, as evidenced by the slew of supportive texts that Thornton says have come in from around the league and even by the comments Orpik made upon his return to practice with the Penguins last week after he missed some time.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to stand on the moral high ground when you’re digging canyons in it with a backhoe. What Thornton did to Orpik, whether you believe he did it in a fit of rage or in calculate attempt to exact revenge for Orpik’s hit on Loui Eriksson, was probably one of the worst ways a player in Thornton’s role on his team could violate “The Code.” Things like picking on a non-fighter or taking an extra swing at a guy with the linesman breaking up the fight don’t reflect well on the league’s enforcers. But surprising a guy from behind and hitting him when he’s down is both an egregious flouting of the rules of engagement and an extremely dangerous act that could’ve had worse results.
For the first 610 games of his NHL career, including playoffs, Thornton was the epitome of a guy who could toe the line. He’s determined to make sure what happened in game 611 will just be a divot that can barely be seen along the grassy fields of his career.
“I’m not going to let this define me. I think I obviously made a mistake,” he said. “One mistake I think doing the job that I’ve done for 600-something games, including playoffs. It’s a tough question to answer because I know I made a mistake. But like I said, this won’t define me. I’m going to move on and continue to play and put this in the past.”
That includes making sure no one takes liberties with one of the teammates who he says have had his back through this entire situation.
“No, it shouldn’t [change the way I play],” he said. “There’s a bunch of circumstances that led up to that mistake I made. I don’t think you duplicate that in any other situation, so it won’t affect the way I do my job. My job is still to protect my teammates. My job is still to play productive minutes when I’m out there, play hard, play the game within the lines. And that’s what I’ll try to continue to do, even though I stepped outside of it once.”
Thornton is back between the lines again. He’s freed of the appeals process and the accompanying gag order. He’s at his best when he’s able to engage with anyone that wants to chat at his stall in the dressing room and when he’s among his teammates looking out for them, young and old, off and on the ice.
He has at least another half regular season and the playoffs to bury the Dec. 7 fiasco on his resume. Accepting the league’s punishment without further legal actions is a great start toward that end.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.