On Shawn Thornton, James Neal, stupid actions, and apologies

Saturday night's game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins was, politely worded, a gong show. These two teams don't care much for each other, and that was more than evident in how the game was played. You expect the big hits, but you'd rather see a clean game. That didn't happen Saturday night.

The chain reaction of events is pretty obvious in this clip. Brooks Orpik hits Loui Eriksson with a borderline hit that could've been an interference penalty. Not long after that, James Neal skates past a prone on the ice Brad Marchand, kneeing him in the head. These two have a history of not liking each other, possibly due to this hit from Marchand on Neal back in the playoffs.

In the ensuing scrum of players, Shawn Thornton skates over, slewfoots Orpik, and hits him several times on the face before and after it is evident that Orpik is unconscious. Orpik was then stretchered off of the ice.

There is so much wrong happening on the ice in such a brief period of time it's absurd. Neal's knee on Marchand's head was sneaky, dangerous, and earned him a five-game suspension from the league's Department of Player Safety, which is the max for a phone hearing. Thornton's hearing will be in person, meaning that more than likely he will get a lengthy suspension.

The reactions of both players could not be more different. When asked later about the knee, Neal said:

“I was skating by him, I haven’t like seen the replay or anything so I mean I hit him in the head with my leg or my foot or my knee or shin area I don’t know,” said Neal. “But I mean he’s already going down and I guess I need to try to avoid him, but I have to look at it again. I haven’t gotten a chance to look at it.”
“I’m going by him, I don’t get out of the way like I said,” he added. “I need to be more careful and I guess get my knee out of the way, but I’m not trying to hit him in the head or injure him or anything like that.”
Translation: "No, I'm not sorry, because I don't view my actions as wrong. Chances are good, considering that I don't know the distance between my knee and my shin, that I was trying to look for an excuse in this interview to deflect any assumption that this is anything more than an unfortunate accident."
There was no way that the knee was anything but calculated. If you watch the replay, you'll see that Neal had no reason to skate past Marchand on his way to the bench. Absolutely none. Thornton's grabbing and slewfooting of Orpik, while in the heat of the moment, was also inexcusable, terrible, and is something that never needs to happen in the game. Ever.
After the game, Thornton surprisingly was made available to the press. Here's his interview:

So why the different responses from the players, who both so obviously did something wrong? Simple: motivation and circumstances surrounding the actions.
Neal's knee to Marchand's head was a conscious process and not a "heat of the moment" response to anything – it was a response to Marchand's boarding of him back in June. Thornton might have a different, more unconscious reason behind his grabbing of Orpik, and therefore more of a motivation to apologize. Thornton can talk about "The Code" all that he wants to, but his amygdalae don't give a rip.
The amygdalae, two areas of the brain that are key in provoking the emotions of fear and anger as well as aiding in memory, are part of the limbic system. Normally, your frontal lobe can tell the amygdalae to back off, which is why when someone cuts us off in traffic we just grumble and flip the bird, not try to run the other driver off of the road.
Sometimes, though, as victims of road rage can attest to, the amygdalae gets the better of the frontal lobe and goes on and fires anyway. Anger turns into aggression, and then all of a sudden you have someone unconscious on their back with you being pulled off of them.
People prone to anger or outbursts of aggression tend to have overactive amygdalae, but any person can fall victim to the strong emotions created by this tiny area of the brain. It does not excuse Thornton's actions – he was still perfectly aware of what he was doing, but it may serve to explain why his apology seemed sincere while Neal's was nonexistent.
The more conscious thought you put into wrongdoing creates an awareness that it is wrong, and an ability to ignore the areas of the brain controlling empathy. Your frontal lobe is more than complicit in the process – it has already justified the action that you're about to take.Therefore, when someone asks you later on to apologize, you either do not do it or are less genuine with it because you do not feel that you have to apologize for anything.
This is not the same as not admitting that what you did was wrong, of course. Anyone can admit their actions were inappropriate but not care about that fact.
Thornton's apology, while not an excuse for what he did, was more genuine because his frontal lobe didn't exactly have time to process what his amygdalae were getting his brain to do until after the fight. Want to know why he looks so puzzled as he's being escorted off of the ice? There.
The apologies (or lack thereof) should not have a thing to do with suspensions. Thornton should get the book thrown at him. But thinking about the process involved in the action might help explain why someone who did something so awful would be genuinely distraught at his actions.

About Laura Astorian

Laura Astorian is the head editor for the SB Nation blog St. Louis Game Time and has been a Blues fan from childhood. She promises that any anti-Blackhawks bias will be left at the door. Maybe.