Nearly a decade ago, the NHL had a chance to make significant change but it failed to capitalize.
When the career of Avalanche forward Steve Moore's career came to an end thanks to a blindside punch from Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi March, 8, 2004, the NHL was presented with an optimum opportunity to rid the sport's highest level of the violence which has plagued it since its creation.
The sight of Bertuzzi, with a warped sense of justice, violently attacking Moore for errant and illegal hit against Canucks captain Markus Naslund Feb. 17, 2004 was as dark of a moment as the NHL has ever seen.
Just short of 10 years later, the repercussions of that ugly display are still being felt ... but only in a court room. Moore is still pursuing litigation against Bertuzzi to the tune of $37 million.
It's still business as usual in the NHL when it comes to ugly scenes like this. Last night's on-ice mugging by Bruins forward Shawn Thornton which knocked out Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik is the latest example of that.
In the aftermath of the Bertuzzi-Moore assault, the NHL did relatively little league wide in response. Following the lockout which wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, the NHL brought in a series of rule changes to promote offense but offered only two rule changes with regards to fighting. Rules 46.12 and 46.22 which addressed fighting in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime. In the past, blowout games would occasionally devolve into battle royals with the losing team attempted to "send a message" which it couldn't send while being blasted 7-1.
While those rule changes did do quite a bit to eliminate circus-like fights at the end of one-sided contests, it didn't eliminate the sense of "frontier justice" which a vast majority of players, coaches and executives feel is an important part of the sport.
Much like Bertuzzi in 2004, Thornton in 2013 tried avenge a perceived wrong against a teammate. When his initial attempt to fight Orpik was rebuffed in last night's game, Thornton took it upon himself to go after Orpik once again. That resulted in Thornton tripping Orpik then punching him in the face repeatedly before Orpik's body went limp. Orpik went to the hospital. Thornton went to the dressing room. And an otherwise marvelous hockey game was completely overshadowed by an insidious display of violence.
This isn't just about fighting. It's about the culture of a league which allows players to feel they have a responsibility and the right to be the police. As reprehensible as Thornton's actions are, if he doesn't try to fight Orpik, he is out of a job. And there isn't any shortage of players willing or capable of replacing Thornton in that role.
That culture exists because the rules which address this area of the game have no teeth. In virtually every other sport outside of combat sports such as mixed martial arts, fighting, whether it's a one-sided assault or a toe-to-toe brawl, results in some sort of supplemental discipline. At the very least, it earns an automatic ejection from that contest. In hockey, the vast majority of fights result in a mere five minute penalty.
If the immediate automatic discipline for a fight had far more substance to it, we have a hard time seeing scenes such as Thornton's takedown of Orpik. If the NHL had something similar to rules implemented by the IIHF - an ejection from that game and an automatic suspension for the next game - does Thornton feel nearly as safe in attempting to fight Orpik? Does he hold back in his attempt to "defend" Bruins forward Loui Eriksson?
Further to that point, if there are stronger, automatic punishments for head shots, does Penguins forward James Neal strike Brad Marchand with a knee to the head or does he "be more careful" and make a better attempt to get his knee "out of the way" as he said after last night's game?
Many years ago, the NHL was marred by bench-clearing brawls. Wayne Gretzky's first visit to Pittsburgh Jan. 19, 1980 was notable for a bench-clearer involving fights which spilled into the penalty box and the stands:
Eventually in the mid 1980s, the NHL instituted rule 72 which made it an automatic 10-game suspension for any player leaving the bench. Penguins fans saw that rule instituted when forward Eric Godard, in an attempt to defend goaltender Brent Johnson from Islanders forward Micheal Haley Feb. 11, 2011:
Today, scenes like that ugly night on Long Island are thankfully very rare because players know the unwavering and automatic consequences of leaving the bench.
Sadly, expecting any sort of far-reaching changes to come out of would be foolish. To its credit, the NHL has implemented some changes to lessen the frequency of fighting. Rules such as banning players from removing their helmets prior to a bout do deter some of it. But that's akin to trying to stop a rhinoceros with a needle.
Relatively little will change following this assault. The NHL's history assures that. If something such as a broken neck suffered by Steve Moore a decade ago had such little impact, what chance does a "mere" concussion to Brooks Orpik have at sparking significant change?
(Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)