Not Perfect. But Better.
BOSTON--It's an improvement, which means it's a start. Then again, we've had false starts before. A bunch of 'em.
Still, this time there was no secret memo produced to excuse this bit of on-ice thuggery, no attempt to try and give playoff games more value and thus produce a suspension of fewer games. Instead, we apparently have the longest suspension ever handed down for an incident in the Stanley Cup final.
Four games for Aaron Rome? It's meaningful, and while a 10-game minimum for this kind of head shot would be better, this is at least a tacit acknowledgment by the NHL that the old days of "better keep your head up" and "don't admire you pass" are, thankfully, over. When people dreamt up those phrases they didn't understand the damage that head injuries cause, both short-term and long-term. The notion that if someone has their head down they deserve to suffer a brain injury is at best quaint and at worst absurd and dangerous.
Just after 2:30 today, Rome released the following statement:
"I want to express my concern for Nathan's well being and wish him a quick and full recovery. I try to play this game honestly and with integrity. As someone who has experienced this type of injury I am well aware of its serious nature and have no desire for another player to experience it. I will not take away my teammates' focus on the task at hand and intend to speak at an appropriate time in future."
Given that Nathan Horton may have suffered an injury with long-term effects - see Eric Lindros, Pat LaFontaine, Marc Savard, Sidney Crosby - there's a very good chance that we may look back and still see this suspension as insufficient. Remember, Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks screamed bloody murder over a two-game ban to Thornton for his headshot on David Perron of the Blues last fall, which, now that we know Perron missed the rest of the season, was clearly a miscarriage of justice.
In these cases, the NHL must find a way to bring a measure of balance between a serious foul and long-term repercussions. Perhaps in a case like this, there needs to be a further review when the suspension is over to see if more games are necessary. Just an idea.
Still, Rome is out for the Stanley Cup final, and that's meaningful for a journeyman player not known to be dirty who may never get a chance like this again. You almost feel sorry for him until you realize that 90 per cent of the players in this league don't try to make that hit, and don't make that hit. Almost all of the time, it's checkers and depth players deciding to execute these marginal hits on top players, and so you end up with situations like this, where the loss of Rome from the Vancouver lineup cannot possibly equate Boston's loss of Horton. Moreover, there will always be a bit of doubt in cases like this as to whether the league would have been as tough on a higher profile player, if Ryan Kesler or Alex Edler would have got four games for the same indiscretion. Like Thornton getting two for wrecking Perron's season.
That said, Vancouver is now down two defencemen - Dan Hamhuis doesn't appear to be returning any time soon - and either Keith Ballard or Chris Tanev will have to suit up for Game 4, putting more pressure on Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Edler and Christian Ehrhoff.
Let's face it, the Canucks had been dancing on this wire for a while. Raffi Torres should have been suspended for at least as long as Rome. Maybe Alex Burrows should have got a game for his bite on Patrice Bergeron in Game 1 of this series. This time, a Canuck goes down, but the team percentages still aren't bad. Morever, now that some form of significant justice has been applied, it's more difficult for the Bruins to band together against the cruel, uncaring world as it was for Chicago in the first round when Torres walked for concussing Brent Seabrook.
You have to feel for Rome in one respect. He was coldcocked by Jamie McGinn of the Sharks in the Western Conference final and McGinn walked away with no suspension. Part of the problem for the NHL is that fans and media can point to so many incidents where the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime, and then wonder why a player like Rome gets hit so hard and is out of the Cup final, destroying his hockey dream.
Then again, he took Horton's dream of playing in the final away with a dumb, dirty act. There's a price to be paid for that.
Boston's Andrew Ference had a measured, useful response when asked about the Rome suspension. "Even though we have taken some of those hits as a team, we understand as well as anybody that it is a very fine line," he said. "A hit like that doesn't mean the guy is a bad guy or anything. They are split-second decisions. But they're split-second decisions that obviously can affect lives, as we've seen."
This was Mike Murphy's call, not Colin Campbell's, but you will still get hysterical suggestions from Vancouver that Campbell, whose kid plays for the Bruins, is behind all of this, and that referees who don't rule in favour of Boston are risking their jobs. It's utter nonsense, but you will hear it. Some in Vancouver are already upset to hear that Brian Burke was one of the people Murphy consulted with before making the decision. These people will read conspiracy into anything.
The only chance to possibly get off this merry-go-round is that when Brendan Shanahan takes over the role of hanging judge next fall, he institutes a much tougher set of rules and suspension minimums to signal a clear break from the past. If every suspension brings up "What about Chara's hit on Pacioretty?" it's impossible to estabish any kind of intelligent guiding philosophy behind the NHL's justice system.
Before this suspension, the longest ban for an incident in the Stanley Cup final was one game (Jiri Fischer 2002, Ville Nieminen '04, Chris Pronger '07). So this is a historic decision, to some degree.
In this case, do I believe Rome wanted to injure Horton? No, but we all know intent is in the eye of the beholder. What I do know is that Rome did injure Horton with a patently illegal hit, and that he has paid a substantial price, even if it's not quite substantial enough.