BOSTON - 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 Finals. 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.
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.
"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."
"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 defenseman 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.
Rome's hit changed the tenor of a tight, defense-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.