GLENDALE, Ariz. – A blindside hit, a history of violence and a league-wide crackdown on rough play earned Raffi Torres one of the longest suspensions in NHL history.
The Phoenix Coyotes winger was suspended 25 games by the league Saturday and will miss the rest of the playoffs for a late hit that resulted in Chicago’s Marian Hossa being taken off the ice on a stretcher.
After one of the least-penalized regular seasons in the NHL’s modern era, Torres is the ninth player to be suspended during what’s been an out-for-blood playoffs so far.
“My main concern is for the healthy recovery of Marian Hossa, and I hope that he will be able to get back on the ice to compete again soon,” said Torres in a statement issued by the players association Saturday. “I sincerely regret injuring Marian.
“Regarding the severity of the suspension issued, I will take the next few days to decide whether or not to appeal the decision.”
Reaction around the league was swift.
“He’s a head hunter now and it’s a damn shame that he’s that way,” said CBC Hockey Night in Canada comentator Don Cherry on his Coach’s Corner segment Saturday night. “He got 25 games, he should’ve gotten 25 games.”
Cherry added later in the segment: “He’s almost a poster boy of how not to play the game.”
“I think it’s a precedent,” added Chicago centre Brendan Morrison Saturday, a few hours before Phoenix tried to clinch its first-round series over the Blackhawks. “We’ve been talking about it for so long over the course of the last couple of years and there has been more suspensions, but the message isn’t getting through to guys. I don’t know how it can’t get through after this.”
Torres’ suspension is the longest for an on-ice offence since New York Islanders forward Chris Simon was banned 30 games for stomping on the ankle of Pittsburgh’s Jarrko Ruutu in December 2007.
It also matches the second-longest suspension: Simon also was suspended 25 games for his two-handed stick attack to the face of New York Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg in 2007 and so was Philadelphia’s Jesse Boulerice for cross-checking Vancouver centre Ryan Kesler across the face that same year.
Vancovuer Canucks winger Jannik Hansen said he definitely feels for Torres. Hansen said Torres should have received four or five games at the most. The heavy punishment will deter players from finishing their checks
“That’s way too much,” said Hansen. “It’s a hit. Yes, he got hurt. But where do we draw the line?”
The ban is the longest handed out by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, who suspended Columbus defenceman James Wisniewski for 13 games (five pre-season, eight regular season) in September.
“The ruling is very severe for Raffi and our hockey club,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said in a statement. “Raffi plays a hard, physical game yet this contact crossed the line on what is acceptable in our game today. We hope Marian Hossa makes a full and speedy recovery as we all enjoy watching him perform.”
If the 25 games of his suspension aren’t exhausted during the playoffs—the Coyotes would need to play four straight seven-game series to complete the suspension—the ban carries over into the next regular season. Torres would not be able to play in any pre-season games in that case.
As a repeat offender, Torres would forfeit US$21,341 in salary for every regular-season game he sits out.
Torres had a goal and an assist and averaged more than 19 minutes of ice time for Phoenix in the first three games of the series.
“The league has made its decision and there is nothing we can do about it now,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “We deal with it as a club and Raffi has to deal with it, but our focus is solely on what we had to do tonight. It’s an unfortunate incident, but the league has had its say and we move on.”
Torres wasn’t penalized when he left his feet to hit an unsuspecting Hossa during Game 3 Tuesday in Chicago, smashing the Blackhawks forward to the ice. Hossa lay on the ice for several minutes before being taken away on a stretcher and hasn’t appeared again in the series.
Torres didn’t play in Game 4 on Thursday, which Phoenix won in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead, and had a hearing with Shanahan on Friday.
Shanahan said in a video statement that Torres’ hit violated three rules: interference, charging and illegal check to the head. In determining the length of the suspension, Shanahan noted that Torres caused severe injury and his discipline history consists mainly of acts similar to the hit on Hossa, including two this season.
“Despite knowing that Hossa no longer has the puck, Torres decides to finish his check past the amount of time when Hossa is eligible to be body-checked,” Shanahan said.
“While we acknowledge the circumstances of certain hits may cause a player’s skates to come off the ice,” he added, “on this hit, Torres launches himself into the air before making contact. … The position of Hossa’s head does not change just prior to or simultaneous with this hit. The onus, therefore, is on Torres not to make it the principal point of contact.
“By leaping, Torres makes Hossa’s head the principal point of contact.”
Shanahan has been criticized for being inconsistent in doling out punishment in what’s been the most penalty-filled playoffs since 1998—18 penalty minutes per game, according to STATS LLC.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said Torres was punished severely in comparison to Chicago’s Duncan Keith, who Shanahan suspended for five games on March 23 for elbowing Daniel Sedin in the head and sidelining him with a concussion.
“It’s probably a little bit confusing for the players at this point,” said Vigneault. “Obviously, it’s not something that we like to see in the game. But in my opinion, that was closer to a hockey play, finishing his check late, than Duncan Keith on Danny. That’s not a hockey play.”
Early in the playoffs, Shanahan fined Nashville captain Shea Weber the league maximum $2,500 for being “reckless” in punching and then shoving Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg head-first into the glass in Game 1 of their series. Zetterberg wasn’t hurt, but questions were raised on whether Weber should have been suspended.
The series between the state rival Flyers and Penguins was more like a UFC fight at the start, with the teams racking up 282 penalty minutes the first four games. The Coyotes-Blackhawks series has been testy, too; Chicago rookie Andrew Shaw was suspended three games for running over Phoenix goalie Mike Smith in Game 2 before Torres’ hit on Hossa.
“You never know what they’re calling,” Coyotes defenceman Derek Morris said. “You don’t know what’s going to be a hard hit, what’s going to be a penalty. There’s been plays you look at and you think, well that one should have been more, that one should have been less. You just don’t know how it’s going to be called so I don’t know how you can adjust the game.”
News of the suspension travelled quickly around the league.
“I just think the NHL is sick of it right now,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters in St. Louis. “I think they’re tired of the predator-type hits.”
Added Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma: “I think it’s going to be probably the most talked-about thing throughout the locker-rooms today.”
The NHL made big strides in preventing head injuries this season after numerous stars—Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews among them—missed games because of concussion-related injuries. The regular season was the least-penalized in 23 years, according to STATS, with teams averaging 11.2 penalty minutes per game.
That’s all changed in the playoffs and the league, along with many of the players, seems to have had enough.
“I’m sure a lofty suspension like that would make any player kind of rethink their actions,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “Maybe he doesn’t think it was such a normal hockey play anymore.”
Torres was suspended for two games in January for charging Minnesota Wild defenceman Nate Prosser and for four games in April 2011 for a hit to the head of Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle while playing for Vancouver.
Torres also had a big hit in last year’s playoffs with the Canucks that knocked out Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook for two games. Torres wasn’t suspended for that hit despite the Blackhawks’ calls for one.
—With files from The Canadian Press.