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There is plenty of blame to be shared as a result of the most recent NHL player (Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik) to be evacuated from the ice on a stretcher following an ugly incident Saturday night in Boston.
It's high time for the NHL brass, their Officiating Department and the NHLPA to put their collective heads together to provide meaningful player safety measures that aren't being achieved through current attempts. Consistently applied player suspensions aren't the only tool to curb dangerous and unwanted hits to the head. We need to take a step back and have a serious discussion, recognizing that education will be the key to effectively changing this destructive culture at all levels of the game.
Players often seek out retribution for hits, even those deemed legal, that are delivered to one of their teammates. Following a "big" hit, the temperature of the game can immediately elevate to the near boiling point. At such times, the referee's primary job is to take whatever measures necessary to control the environment. To do that, he has to have a "feel" for the game and what is required. A better job could have been done by the refs in that regard after Orpik delivered a hard, legal open-ice check that knocked Loui Erisksson out of the game on the very first shift.
Credit must be given to the referees for not overreacting to Orpik's legal check and then sending Zdeno Chara to the box for his retaliatory cross-check at the first stoppage of play 21 seconds in. The fuse was lit, however, and the refs could have been more proactive in bringing the temperature down and containing the ongoing illegal push-back demonstrated by some of the Bruin players.
At the 2:42 mark, Chris Kelly was allowed to shove Chris Connor to the ice from behind at the red line with a cross-check motion deserving of an interference penalty. On a subsequent shift, Kelly again took a charge at Connor and delivered a high finish hit that should have resulted in a timely call.
While a roughing minor was assessed to Shawn Thornton for popping Orpik a couple times in the face at 5:44, a prime opportunity to douse the flames was indeed missed by the referee by not adding a 10-minute misconduct to Thornton for his attempts to incite a fight with Orpik. That penalty, in addition to a 'conference' needed with Bruins head coach Claude Julien would have sent a strong and clear message where the control in the game rested! The game was very unsettled at this point and you didn't have to be on the ice to feel it.
Oddly enough, sometimes a fight can help bring the temperature down but the negative energy did not diminish following the fisticuffs between Milan Lucic and Deryk Engelland at 7:19. Unfortunately, the nastiness came to a head less than four minutes later when Sidney Crosby tripped Brad Marchand in apparent view of the trailing referee and no call resulted. The referee did react a second later by raising his arm when James Neal extended a left knee directly (and deliberately) to the head of Marchand as the Bruin was getting up off the ice. While the referee observed and reacted to the kneeing infraction, I have a major problem with the fact that it was only deemed to be a minor penalty. At the very least, based on the deliberate act by Neal, a major and a game misconduct would be required and a match penalty for deliberate attempt to injure was most deserving! (Neal remained in the game and scored a power play goal after stepping out of the penalty box from serving his minor for kneeing.)
When play stopped at the other end of the ice, more retribution was being sought against Orpik; this time by Gregory Campbell in a scrum. Thornton ended it (and lost it) with a slew-foot that took Orpik down from behind. The subsequent gloved knockout punches delivered by Thornton after Orpik hit the ice resulted in immediate medical attention and the stretcher being required to remove the Penguins' defenceman.
As I said at the outset, there is plenty of blame to be shared when these horrific situations take place. Much is needed and can be done across the board to curb and eliminate the needless violence that places careers and the future health of players in jeopardy. It took a complete buy-in and education of players, coaches, and referees to change the negative culture of "obstruction" following a return from the first lockout season.
While lengthy suspensions might be the immediate remedy in these two incidents, it will take coaching, education and a universal buy-in to fix this problem in the long-term.
It's not exclusively the referees' job to bring the temperature down.