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Hits still issue they can’t lick

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By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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Although it’s far too early to tell — in fact, it’s totally guesswork at this point — Aaron Rome’s ugly cheap shot that sent Nathan Horton out of the Garden last night on a stretcher possibly snatched the Stanley Cup out of the Vancouver Canucks’ grasp and handed it to the Bruins.

And if so . . . ?

Well, Bruins fans will consider it a form of poetic justice, provided they prefer their verse vulgar, tawdry, and shameful. How else to describe Rome’s head shot, which left the vacant-eyed Horton with his brain addled, flat on his back, an arm frozen and pointing directly toward the Garden’s ceiling?

It was yet another prime example of the kind of hit that the NHL has been far too slow to ameliorate, the kind of hit the players themselves knit deeper and deeper into what has become their twisted culture of on-ice seek and destroy. Horton had released the puck and was looking to his left, and the predatory Rome used the opportunity to flatten the unsuspecting forward with a stiff shoulder check tucked up toward Horton’s chin.

Not that Henrik Sedin, Rome’s teammate, saw it that way. When I asked what he thought of a blindside hit to the head that was delivered with intent to injure (mission accomplished), the ever-polite twin said, “Romer is a real honest player . . . I don’t think it was blindside or anything like that.’’

Bruins winger Shawn Thornton, who had a sensational game, agreed that Rome “is a good person’’ and an honest player. He spent time on rosters with Rome in Portland, Maine, and later in Anaheim. However, Thornton said, “that’s a lateral hit to the head.’’ And it’s what the league and its players continue to address, say that they have to clean up, but with only bits of success.

As they carted Horton off the ice, his feet taped together at the ankles as he was led out the Zamboni entrance to a waiting ambulance, Thornton stood at the end of the Boston bench and stared across to the Vancouver bench.

“That’s become the culture of the game,’’ said Thornton, “and it has to get out of the game. Obviously, I wasn’t happy with the hit. You could tell by my facial expression that I wasn’t happy with it.’’

“Obviously, it’s something we are trying to get rid of,’’ said the ever-even-tempered Zdeno Chara. “Unfortunate to see a teammate hit like that . . . we’re hoping for a quick recovery and that he’s OK. When something like that happens, you have to stay focused. You can’t get rattled. You have to continue.’’

In the old NHL, Rome never would have had the pleasure to skate unscathed from penalty box to dressing room, expelled for a five-minute interference penalty and a game misconduct. A league official said the play is under review by the NHL’s disciplinary office. It’s a good bet he won’t be around for the rest of the series.

In the NHL of yore, an on-ice brawl would have erupted and someone on the Boston side surely would have shredded Rome, then perhaps moved on to one of the Sedins, Daniel or Henrik, and turned one of them into Causeway paté. Horton for Rome, a first-line winger for a journeyman defenseman, is no eye-for-an-eye swap, and that’s how the league once operated. Frontier justice sur glace.

Thankfully, that’s not today’s NHL, and it hasn’t been for 20-plus years. But while it has dialed down the outrageous bloodbaths and inched closer to ridding the game of all fighting, the NHL has shuffled its feet irresponsibly over Rome-like predatory hits. And the Players’ Association is regrettably culpable, failing to get its rank-and-file to recognize that seek-and-destroy hockey is not a sustainable practice. Horton is just the latest player to pay the price of a failed fix.

How many more heads must roll?

How many more players like the highly talented Henrik Sedin are going to stand there and talk gibberish in the face of truth? What might he have said if, say, his brother Daniel had been carried out on that same spinal board, the victim of a Johnny Boychuk smackdown?

Just not right. Just not honest. Just not something we can keep laying on the league’s doorstep and expecting the Manhattan/Toronto business suits to fix. It’s the guys in uniform who need to wake up and smell the antiseptic odor of the emergency rooms that their fallen teammates and opponents are left to inhale on nights like last night.

Referees Stephen Walkom and Dan O’Rourke played their part in the buffoonery. Unable to get a full grasp of their jobs, they watched over — key word, watched — a night run amok, which included four 10-minute misconducts on Vancouver’s side and five more on Boston’s side. Total PIMs: 145. After a while, it became difficult to figure just what the guys in stripes were doing out there, other than guessing.

Ryan Kesler and Dennis Seidenberg engaged in a quick scrap at 11:16 of the third, a rare occasion for Boston’s German back liner.

“I don’t know how to fight — it just happened,’’ said Seidenberg, sounding amused.

Seidenberg was down and Kesler continued to fire punches, breaking from tradition.

“I guess everyone can make their own opinion about that,’’ said Seidenberg, who came through it unscathed. “Nothing really happened, so I don’t care.’’

Game 4 of this fun and frolic is tomorrow night. The Canucks last night saw their series lead cut in half, in part because of Rome’s cheap shot but also an emotional charge in the Bruins, and their home crowd, that we haven’t seen before under coach Claude Julien’s tutelage. It could be that Rome’s hit ends up being the gift that keeps on giving. If so, the Bruins will have their first Cup since 1972. And no one will have paid more for it than the cudgeled Horton.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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