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Starkey: NHL stuck in stone age

| Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
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The Penguins' Brooks Orpik is carted off of the ice on a stretcher by the medical staff in the first period after an altercation with the Bruins' Shawn Thornton on Dec. 7, 2013, in Boston.

James Neal's suspension was far too light. Shawn Thornton's will be, too, unless the NHL slaps him with at least 50 games (it won't) for his unconscionable attack on Brooks Orpik.

True justice would see Thornton sitting until next season and Neal serving a 25-game suspension, instead of five, for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head.

So warped is the NHL's Cro-Magnon culture that some deem five games a stiff penalty for intentionally crashing a knee into a helpless player's skull.

Would the union appeal such severe penalties? Oh yes. But that possibility should never stop the league from trying. If it's thwarted by a union counterattack (a sneak attack, of course, just like the ones on the ice), then the blood would be on the players' hands.

Orpik, last we heard, still didn't remember anything past the national anthem Saturday. Marchand returned to the game, but if there's one thing we know about head hits, it's that the damage often can be delayed.

Too bad NHL commissioner Gary Bettman didn't view the Penguins-Bruins debacle as a rock-bottom event. Too bad he didn't experience a moment of clarity amid the madness. This would have been the perfect time to paint a new starting line, to throw out old precedents and enact new ones.

The old ones, if they were supposed to be deterrents, did not work. Players are not deterred. They are emboldened more than ever.

I asked Penguins union rep Craig Adams if respect among players has lessened.

“It's probably what it's always been,” he said. “But I don't think it's what it should be.”

A sane hockey world would have zero tolerance for the worst kind of violence — the kind aimed at the heads of unsuspecting victims. Sneak attacks. Potential life-changers. Orpik had his back turned when Thornton jumped him. Marchand was crawling on his knees when Neal cracked him.

Neal addressed the media Tuesday. Credit him for sounding the right notes, unlike after Saturday's game — though he still insisted there was no intent.

“It's not the smartest decision I ever made, looking back on it,” Neal said. “I'm glad he's OK. Going forward, I need to learn from it. ... I have to be smarter and control my emotions a lot better.”

In his video explanation of Neal's suspension, NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan made it clear he thought Neal went out of his way to “ensure” contact with Marchand's head.

That doesn't even get you an in-person meeting with the league?

Five measly games?

The Penguins should be mortified by Neal's maneuver. He embarrassed an organization that has tried to take a lead in the NHL's alleged battle against concussions.

This franchise saw its best player lose a hefty portion of his career on account of what many would label a predatory head shot by David Steckel. It went to great lengths to rehabilitate Matt Cooke. It recently partnered with UPMC in a program called “Heads Up Pittsburgh,” an effort aimed at “making more hockey families aware of concussions in the sport.”

Now it has to deal with more of Neal's reckless shenanigans?

This was Neal's third suspension, putting him just two behind Cooke, and he's only 26. He's been suspended three times and fined once. He was docked a game in the playoffs two years ago for going crazy on a shift against the Flyers. He left his feet to hammer Sean Couturier at one end and drilled Claude Giroux with a maniacal hit at the other, leaving Giroux obviously dazed.

Shanahan should be ashamed that he gave Neal only a game for that rampage. Some deterrent.

If GM Ray Shero hasn't sat Neal down for a long talk, it's time.

Meanwhile, some saw the Neal and Thornton incidents as comparable. They were, to a point: Thornton's slew footing of Orpik was roughly the equivalent of Neal's hit.

Thornton, however, went light years beyond that when he punched a prone Orpik twice in the head — the second one, it appeared, coming after Orpik was unconscious.

Thornton had to be pulled away. Is it crazy to question whether another blow or series of blows to the head might have killed Orpik? I'm no medical expert, but pummeling an unconscious man would seem to carry that risk.

It all makes you wonder if the only thing that could advance the NHL past the Stone Age is somebody not waking up.

And if even that would do it.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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