Two players made two bad decisions in an instant, something that happens fairly often in the NHL. Boston's Nathan Horton watched his pass an instant too long, and Vancouver's Aaron Rome checked him an instant too late.
Both players' seasons ended in that instant during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. Horton dropped to the ice, apparently unconscious on his back with his eyes open and his gloved right hand reaching up frighteningly into empty space, while Rome was sent to the Canucks' dressing room under a vicious cascade of boos from Bruins fans.
The NHL is a volatile cocktail of big men with sticks skating swiftly over a confined ice surface, and those elements collided with devastating impact in the sport's biggest showcase Monday night.
Horton is out for the rest of the NHL's championship round with a severe concussion, and Rome received a four-game suspension — the longest in Stanley Cup Finals history — beginning with the pivotal Game 4 on Wednesday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET).
"There's no fun to this," said Mike Murphy, the NHL executive in charge of discipline for the series. "There's no enjoyment to this. Nobody wins in this. Everybody loses. The fans lose. We lost two good hockey players."
Hockey cultivates and even condones violence — fighting is still allowed, after all — yet still struggles to agree on standards to control it. The line between legally aggressive play and dirty tactics is minuscule, and it's almost impossible to see in an instant.
"Only people who have been on the ice can understand how fast it is, and how quick the decision-making process has to be," said Vancouver defenceman Keith Ballard, who's likely to step into Rome's lineup spot. "You feel like there's no way you can do the right thing sometimes."
Most coaches and players agree the NHL is trying. Concussion awareness has grown tremendously in recent years, with new rules and a safety protocol instituted to protect players from blindside hits and head shots.
Yet several prominent players, including Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, Nashville's Matthew Lombardi and Boston's own high-scoring forward, Marc Savard, still have been seriously hurt by hits of wildly varying legality. Reports of concussions are rising even while dangerous hits diminish.
"It's such a fast game now, not to say there weren't injuries dating back," said Boston forward Gregory Campbell, whose father, Colin, is giving up his job as the NHL's top disciplinarian.
"I think now the awareness of the injuries is what has brought the attention on these hits," Campbell said. "It's such a fast game now. Things happen quickly. Players are so strong. It's unfortunate that the game has to deal with this. It's kind of taken on a life of its own. It's tough to try to make everybody happy. It's almost impossible."
Rome's hit changed the tenor of a tight, defence-dominated series that featured just six total goals in the first two games. The Bruins returned from the first intermission determined to win big for Horton, and they scored eight goals in the next 40 minutes as the game degenerated into a prolonged brawl, with nine misconduct penalties and 118 penalty minutes in the third period alone.
"The times we play the best are when there's been a lot of emotion in a very physical game," Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference said. "[That's] what our sport is all about — finding that line, playing hard. We're allowed to be physical. That's part of the fabric of our sport. We understand that it is a very fine line. A hit like that doesn't mean the guy is a bad guy or anything. They are split-second decisions, but they're split-second decisions that obviously can affect lives."
While the Bruins agreed it seemed a bit indelicate to credit Horton's devastating injury for improving their play, that's exactly what happened. Boston beat Vancouver 8-1 in the highest-scoring performance in a finals game in 15 years, battering the Canucks' defence and holding their NHL-best power play scoreless in eight chances while Boston goalie Tim Thomas made 40 saves.
While brushing off their collapse as an anomaly, the Canucks also decried the severity of Rome's suspension, noting apparently worse hits that went unpunished earlier in the post-season. Rome was a victim of such a hit in the Western Conference final, but wasn't injured when San Jose's Jamie McGinn checked him into the boards from behind.
"Aaron isn't a dirty player," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "Never has been, never will be. It was a hit that unfortunately turned bad."
The Canucks made some valid arguments: The delivery of the hit itself couldn't have been illegal, they claimed, since Rome's shoulder connected squarely in the chest with Horton, who wasn't looking. Vigneault acknowledged it might have been late, but his players even doubted that argument.
"We don't think he should have been suspended," NHL scoring champion Daniel Sedin said. "We're thinking of Romer right now. He's a hardworking guy, great teammate and a friend. He's going to be out of the playoffs. It should be a rallying cry for us, too."
Although coaches and players routinely castigate the NHL for the length and severity of most suspensions for dirty hits, they usually agree the executives in charge of the decisions have a thankless, nearly impossible job. The NHL strives to apply scientific standards and precedent to its disciplinary decisions, often parsing hits by tenths of a second, or a degree of rotation in a player's head.
"I'm supporting the league, knowing they're trying to do the best they can," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "There's no easy decision. This is a contact sport. You can't take the contact out of the game. Just got to try to take those situations where it becomes extremely dangerous out of the game."
Yet with the size and speed of the modern player, even relatively innocuous hits can cause life-changing injuries.
Crosby missed the second half of the season with a concussion after taking two hard hits in consecutive games, only returning to workouts last week. Savard has been out since January after receiving two concussions in less than a year — the first on a dirty hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke. Savard, who has memory problems, hasn't decided his future.
Boston captain Zdeno Chara came under scrutiny for his hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty in March. Some observers saw it as a dangerous blow to a defenceless player, while others thought it was a minor interference penalty that went wrong.
Horton's injury simply underlined the changing nature of hockey to those involved in the Stanley Cup Final who played when the skaters were smaller and slower.
"We need to clean up this game from those kinds of hits," Julien said. "You've got to remember, in the days where players were policing themselves, I'm not sure the players were as strong, as big and quick as they are today. The game has changed a lot in regards to that, so somehow we've got to, I guess, make some changes to the rules, adapt to what it has become, and understand that the hits today are a lot harder than they were 30, 40 years ago."