We had a feeling Raffi Torres wouldn’t play hockey again for a long, long time the minute Jakob Silfverberg fell to the ice Saturday night.
Torres had every conceivable strike against him. He’d run up a significant tab of suspensions in recent seasons. He got 25 games, appealed down to 21, for a devastating head shot that knocked Marian Hossa out of the 2011-12 post-season. Torres also earned a rest-of-playoffs ban for a head shot on Jarret Stoll in 2012-13. So Torres was in trouble the second he caught Silfverberg with a questionable hit Oct. 3. If the league deemed the play suspendable, Torres’ history of repeatedly violating one particular rule – 48.1, illegal check to the head – would greatly expand his sentence length.
But did anyone expect 41 games? Half a season? It’s a staggering punishment – and a staggeringly strong decision by the NHL Department of Player Safety.
It’s important to understand Torres’ history had no impact on the decision to suspend or not suspend him. Repeat offenses, and injuries to a victimized player, can only impact suspension length. Before the league reaches that juncture, it first must decide whether the play was illegal at all. So if Torres hit Silfverberg in a way the league deemed acceptable, Torres would’ve been off the hook, regardless of rap sheet. Alas, the hit wasn’t legal. Have a look:
As outlined in that explanatory video, Torres hits Silfverberg 0.8 seconds after Silfverberg loses the puck. That falls under the league’s official designation of “late hit.” Torres takes four strides toward Silfverberg and delivers a “high hit,” making Silfverberg’s head the main point of contact. Even though Silfverberg’s arm is up, and there may be some arm-on-arm contact first, the principal impact zone is the head. That made the hit suspendable before Torres’ history even came into play. Damian Echevarrieta, the NHL’s vice-president of player safety, told THN the league even could’ve flagged Torres for charging on top of the two official infractions, interference and illegal check to the head.
Then it was time for the department to factor in Torres’ past offenses. Thanks to a major knee injury, Torres had barely played in the past two years, which theoretically could’ve cleaned his slate under the CBA rules because he wasn’t suspended during that time. But, as Echevarrieta noted, Torres only played five regular season games and seven playoff games in that two-season span. Including three pre-season contests, that’s just a 15-game window between the suspension for the Stoll hit and the new 41-game ban, which Torres has the right to appeal. It’s a tiny gap between incidents, suggesting Torres hasn’t changed his behavior.
“Raffi is so unique in his situation,” said Stephane Quintal, the NHL’s senior vice-president of player safety. “I know he came and tried to change his behaviour, and he only played 15 games since he got hurt, but he obviously doesn’t get it. A warning, fine or suspension 11 times. He’s put us in a tough position.”
It’s also important not just that Torres has been suspended so often, but that the bans are for the same act. Echevarrieta points out certain players haven’t seen their suspension lengths escalate because they’re not committing the same act each time. That’s how Chris Pronger, now a member of the DOPS, got by during his playing career. But Torres consistently committed the same foul: late hit, high hit, head targeted. It was a highly specific behavior, and he wasn’t changing it. The league had no choice but to come down hard. Excluding lifelong bans, it’s the longest suspension in league history in terms of specific number of games. Todd Bertuzzi, for example, earned a seemingly more severe “indefinite” ban for the Steve Moore attack in 2004 but ended up missing 20 games.
Echevarrieta insists the league took no pleasure doling out the punishment. A perfect world, he said, would not be a league with many suspensions, but one with no suspensions, meaning player behavior had finally changed for the better.
The league did not consider a lifelong ban for Torres during the decision-making process. What happens if Torres returns to the NHL and commits another head shot? Would that bring about a permanent suspension? Quintal declined to comment on that hypothetical and said he simply hopes the league never ends up in that position.
The DOPS members believe Torres genuinely wants to change. After his previous suspension, he visited the their offices. They shared video with him. He watched it to learn his habits. He looked them in the eyes and showed a willingness to learn.
“I’m disappointed, because I thought we made some headway with him,” Echevarrieta said. “And to see it, it was, ‘Aw, come on, him?’ I thought of all the guys he’d be the one who wouldn’t do this. I thought he got it.'”
The league still believes it’s less a matter of malice on Torres’ part than it is being unable to kick a habit, a muscle memory of how to hit.
“He offers the league something, he offers the team something,” Echevarrieta said. “He scored 27 goals in this league. He can skate. He’s an effective player. We don’t want to ruin his career. We just want to make sure he doesn’t ruin anybody else’s.”
That’s why the decision was the right one. Whatever Torres is – vicious or clumsy, malicious or careless – his behavior is unsafe. And the only hope of teaching him anything was to drastically increase his punishment.