I once talked with an NHL player at length on the record about Raffi Torres, who was opposing him in a playoff series one spring, and he had little positive to say about Torres.
Then I turned off my recorder, and asked that player — an assistant captain on a very good team — again. His answer: “I’d have him on my team any day.”
That was the thing about Torres. Twenty-nine teams despised him, but there was always one who would take him. Like defenceman Bryan Marchment once did, Torres has the ability to change a game with a single check — clean or dirty. He can throw the hit on which a playoff series can turn, as he did in 2006 for the Edmonton Oilers against San Jose.
It’s a blessing that so few players have, and an asset that has given Torres value. But he never figured out how to do it the right way, and as the rules for what we accept as a clean hit have changed, Torres simply could not adapt. He just can’t process the new standards.
Today, Torres is like the speedy winger who skates at 50 KM per hour, but whose hands that top out at 30. That player’s feet are too fast for his hands, while in Torres’ case, his brain is simply unable to compute the delivery of the hits that his body creates.
Monday’s 41-game suspension marks the ninth time that Torres has been warned, fined or suspended in a seven-team, 703-game NHL career. It’s his fifth suspension, which is light by half, considering the predatory nature of his game.
Meanwhile, the fact this league has allowed him 703 games in total is a blight. And when the concussion case begins in earnest, the NHL’s light treatment of this known danger will be on the docket, you can bet.
I recall back in 2011 when Torres was not suspended for a shoulder to the head of then-Boston defenceman Andrew Ference on Dec. 28. The very next night he was let off with a fine after a headshot on Colorado defenceman Jan Hejda.
Undeterred, on Dec. 31 Torres skated out against Minnesota and cracked Nate Prosser with a patented shoulder to the head. The league gave Torres two games, but the stretch of games was like a robber that wanted to be caught, so reckless was Torres despite the fact that all eyes were on him every shift.
He clocked Chicago’s Brent Seabrook once in the playoffs, and the league concocted some ridiculous rhetoric about a “hitting zone” in which it was OK to concuss players. This was simply a case of traditional old men not realizing where the concussion debate was headed. Today, those same people wince at the recollection.
If you can believe it, Torres actually does not meet the definition of a repeat offender under the terms of the CBA, because of the amount of time that has passed since his last infraction. Kudos to the NHL for ruling that a red herring, which exists only due to injury as Torres has only played 15 NHL games since his last suspension, a head shot on Jarret Stoll.
A 41-game ban is indeed mighty, and could be grounds for an appeal by the NHLPA, but that organization is a different place than it once was. I simply can not see the union protecting Torres’ right to cripple more of their members.
Today, if the NHLPA took it to a players’ vote, Torres might never play again.
Yes, this time a player who has bitten the mailman again and again and again with relatively little consequence, may finally have a date at the veterinarian’s.
His suspension means that San Jose must play the first half of the season down a man, as a suspended player counts as a roster spot. The Sharks are not absolved of paying his contract however. The money ($440,860.29) just goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund — so the Sharks are paying a player with no return of service.
With precedent set, the next Torres suspension for a high hit — which will come as surely as the sun rises in the East — could be 60 games. Or perhaps a full season.
No team will risk employing that player once Torres’ current deal expires after the 2015-16 season. He will join the likes of Patrick Kaleta, another guy who never figured out how not to hurt people, in the minors or in retirement.
Amen. The game is a better place without them.