Boston Bruins scoring winger Nathan Horton has enjoyed his first season with a good NHL team. Horton was pegged as perhaps the acquisition that Boston needed to bolster its somewhat anemic offense enough to get over the eastern conference hump. The Bruins already had a solid defensive system through and through, as well as a second-year starting goalie in Tuukka Rask, who unseated the former Vezina-winning Tim Thomas in 2009-10. Rask did not provide much of an encore this season, but that was due to Thomas’ aggressive ripping back of the Vezina Trophy in surprising fashion.
As the offensive part of that bargain though, Horton lived up to his billing from the start. The Bruins began their season in Prague against the Phoenix Coyotes, and Horton wasted no time in showing that Boston was right to trade for him. The former Panther boarded the team plane for the states with three goals and an assist in the two-game split against Phoenix. From there, Horton has only continued to play an intricate role in Boston’s ascent to the eastern conference championship. When the Bruins needed overtime goals in Games 5 and 7 at home against Montreal in the first round, it was Horton who lit the lamp both times. And no Bruins goal in the last 20 seasons has been bigger than Horton’s two-handed stuff to clinch the Wales Trophy in Game 7’s 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay.
But Horton’s dream season was ended in the blink of an eye last night, courtesy of a gutless late hit by Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome early in Game 3 right at Vancouver’s blue line. Horton had passed the puck to his left and turned up ice to look to start either a give and go or a charge to the net, when Rome dug his right skate in, lowered his shoulder and embarked on a flight that will forever change Horton’s career, and possibly his life. By now we all know that concussions are plaguing our sport, and we don’t have to look far to find examples of a concussion destroying a playing career.
The most obvious example is of course that of Sidney Crosby, who still has not played a hockey game since January 5. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Crosby was the league MVP in 2007, won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and scored the overtime goal in the gold medal game at the 2010 Olympic Games for Canada. He is one of the few hockey players who had legitimate non-hockey fan buzz before he was ever drafted, and was labeled “The Next One” as a teenager. Crosby had 66 points in 41 games this season, and is still two months away from his 24th birthday. No matter what you think of his notoriety, there is no objective conclusion other than that he is an immense loss for the NHL, and if he never plays again, the league will be worse for it.
Another example hits a lot closer to home for the Bruins. Marc Savard, previously a star center for the Bruins, was the most discussed concussion victim until Crosby trumped him around New Year’s. On March 7, 2010, Savard took a trademarked elbow from Penguins goon Matt Cooke that turned the lights out. According to reports, Savard still cannot tolerate bright lights, and has a hard time being around a commotion for extended periods of time. Good luck playing hockey in front of 20,000 fans. What’s scarier is that Savard said that for the first time in his life, he became apathetic about everything and fell into a deep depression. Not depressed that he was injured and couldn’t play, but depressed. There were alarming quotes saying things to the effect that Savard did not really care about his own life anymore. He admitted that he did not even know why he felt this way, but he had a hard time shaking it. Savard has played a couple brief periods of hockey since, but he too has not played a game since February 8 of this year.
And so now we lose another bright young man, who just a week ago joined me in the ranks of 26 year-old, right handed shots (that’s where the comparisons end, unfortunately for me). Horton has been officially ruled out for the remainder of the series, but that was obvious before the man’s skull even hit the ice.
On a much more cheerful note, the NHL has continued its tolerant stance on shots to the head and late hits by assessing Rome a token four-game suspension, which just happens to be the exact amount of games left in the series, if necessary. Rome’s suspension does not even necessarily hurt the Canucks, who are now free to activate the talented $4.2 million man, Keith Ballard. That ought to be funny, as the Canucks are forced to replace one defenseman who has no respect for fellow players with one who nearly decapitated his own goaltender last year.
But really, we cannot blame Rome for his actions. The man is just another in a long line of young players who play without respect for their fellow hockey colleagues. There is no room for cowardly plays like the one Rome made last night, but the fact is that we are seeing it more and more in the financially growing world of hockey. I am worried about this as a hockey guy. That game was on worldwide television, and just five minutes into the game, every kid and his or her mother saw a man’s life altered. I am not trying to dramatize what happened. Plays like that are seen and talked about by everybody, and they have a negative impact on the number of kids who will take up the game and grow to make the sport and the league as good as it can be. The NHL has done a good job to cultivate a landscape that has set hockey up for the rise that it is currently enjoying. But all of that fertile ground can be blazed away by one or two unsupervised idiots playing with matches or dropping a cigarette. We can’t stop all of the idiots from doing stupid things, but we sure as hell can create an environment that deters idiots from acting in a careless manner. The only way to do this is to get serious about hits like last night’s, but the league has once again decided to put getting tough off until a later date.
*** Alteration 6-9-11 at 7:19 a.m. ***
Upon thinking about it further, I feel the league handed out the correct suspension. The hit was late and vicious, and Rome should feel embarrassed about that, but it wasn’t one of the dirtiest hits we’ve seen in recent memory. There’s no real reason to suspend the guy for next season, so at this point, I feel the four-game suspension was the right move. Anything less, and I would still be upset about it, but the league ensured that Rome will not be able to play this season, and that seems fair enough.