BOSTON — Boston Bruins sniper Nathan Horton and the opponent who put him in the hospital with a severe concussion, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Aaron Rome, have been lost for the remainder of the playoffs.
NHL senior vice-president Mike Murphy imposed a harsh four-game suspension on Rome for his late shoulder-to-head hit that forced Horton out of the playoffs with a severe head injury early in Boston's 8-1 victory in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
It was the longest suspension in NHL final history. If this series, which the Canucks lead 2-1 with Game 4 set for Wednesday, does not reach a sixth or seventh game, Rome will finish the remainder of his four-game suspension next season.
The Canucks felt the suspension was too stiff. The Bruins' focus was the loss of their first-line right wing, who scored eight goals, three game-winners and the series-clinching goals in Game 7s of the opening round against the Montreal Canadiens and the East final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"Nathan Horton is an unbelievable player," Boston veteran Shawn Thornton said. "He does everything. He can skate, he can score and he is physical. There isn't anything I can say negative about the way he plays."
Even though he tried to wrestle with a Bruins trainer and get up after the hit, Horton was taken off the ice on a stretcher and hospitalized overnight. He was released on Tuesday morning and communicated via text with a few of his teammates.
Rome, too, tried to reach out and contact Horton. The Canucks later released a statement from Rome, who was given a five-minute interference infraction and a game misconduct on the controversial incident.
"I want to express my concern for Nathan's well being and wish him a quick and full recovery," the statement said. "I try to play this game honestly and with integrity. As someone who has experienced this type of injury I am well aware of its serious nature and have no desire for another player to experience it.
"I will not take away my teammates' focus on the task at hand and intend to speak at an appropriate time in future."
This was not a blindside hit. Rome caught Horton looking left at the pass he had just delivered to a teammate. But Rome's check came well above a second after Horton got rid of the puck. A half-second is deemed acceptable by the league.
In issuing Rome's punishment, Murphy didn't like the lateness and the severity of Horton's injury.
"This has nothing to do with Rule 48 [the blindside rule hit]," Murphy said. "This is just an interference penalty, an interference hit. If it was immediate after he released the puck, it would be a legal hit. We have them all the time."
Rome will be allowed to join his teammates on the ice for a Stanley Cup celebration if the Canucks manage to win two more games in the series. Canucks centre Manny Malhotra, who missed the first 19 games of the Vancouver playoff run recovering from a serious left eye injury, remarked that Rome will continue to be part of the team behind the scenes.
"I think as a group we don't agree with [the suspension]," Malhotra said. "I know Aaron is an honest player and wouldn't have had intentions to hurt [Horton]. He's a hard-nosed player. I know he feels bad.
"It's devastating to be so close to your dream and then have it taken away."
The 27-year-old Rome was a victim himself of a questionable hit in Game 3 of the West final, when San Jose Sharks fourth-liner Jamie McGinn knocked Rome out of the final two games with a concussion. McGinn avoided suspension, but was given a five-minute major and game misconduct for his misdeed.
Rome was not made available to reporters on Tuesday.
"I don't think he could talk to you right now," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "He's very emotional. He's very disappointed. He's been taken out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A couple of weeks ago, he was almost taken out of the Stanley Cup playoffs by another player in a situation that, in my mind, my opinion, was far worse."
"I don't think right now he could tell you anything because he's way too emotional about what happened.
"We're going to focus on tomorrow night's game."