Before he stepped onto the ice for practice Tuesday morning, Tri-City Americans centre Brendan Shinnimin learned that the WHL has handed him a 12-game suspension for his controversial hit on Saskatoon Blades right-winger Josh Nicholls.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Shinnimin said from Swift Current, Sask., where the Americans face the Broncos tonight to finish a six-game Prairie road trip.
“You don’t want to be out of the lineup too long. But it’s a fair punishment and I accept it.”
Shinnimin, a 19-year-old Winnipeg product, has already sat out three games since the Blades defeated the Americans 5-3 last Wednesday in Saskatoon.
Late in that game, he cross-checked Nicholls from behind and into the end boards. Nicholls suffered a mild concussion and bruised back, and he missed the next Blades’ game, a 6-4 win over the Moose Jaw Warriors two nights later.
The incident has attracted national media coverage, including a replay of the hit Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada.
Shinnimin phoned Nicholls on Sunday to apologize for what both players described as a “scary” transgression.
“I got a hold of him and it was good to hear that he’s doing OK,” Shinnimin said. “I just gave him my condolences and apologized for the incident. He said he was doing better. That’s good to hear.
“It’s disappointing to hear that I’m suspended for 12 games, but the main thing is that Josh is all right and everything is going to get back to normal.”
Shinnimin, one of the WHL’s top scorers, isn’t eligible to return to action until Nov. 13.
Nicholls, 18, hopes to be back in the Saskatoon lineup Friday when the Blades visit the Red Deer Rebels. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ draft pick from Tsawwassen, B.C., had been off to a strong start, with five goals and 10 points in six games.
After speaking with WHL disciplinarian Richard Doerksen last week, Shinnimin was prepared for a “substantial” suspension. So he wasn’t necessarily surprised when Tri-City coach Jim Hiller gave him the verdict Tuesday.
“I thought it would be just around there,” Shinnimin said of his 12-game sentence. “It’s disappointing, but in the same respect, you’ve got to move on and let it go.”
In a weekend interview, Shinnimin expressed remorse and tried to explain his actions.
“I was just backchecking hard and it was just one of those things, just a last-second reaction,” he said. “I had seen the puck get thrown to the middle toward (Nicholls). I had no intention of hurting the player. It was just a bad break and a bad decision, a mistake by myself. I feel awful about it, obviously.
“It was tough to sleep for a couple of nights. It was a scary moment. You never want to see a player go down like that.”
Nicholls was dazed after the hit, but he clearly remembers the pain he experienced.
“I can remember everything,” he said. “I was just having trouble breathing and my back was kind of sore.
“I’ve watched (the replay) quite a few times now. It’s definitely something that is scary to watch. You kind of have to cringe. It’s something that you don’t like seeing.”
Nicholls, who scored two goals in that game, didn’t suspect he was about to be hit from behind.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I never had the puck, so I didn’t think anyone would come hit me.”
After a couple of sleepless nights because of a concussion and tightness in his back, Nicholls planned to resume off-ice training Sunday and practise this week. He hoped to practise Tuesday, but doctors kept him off the ice for one more day.
Nicholls is thankful to be able to skate so soon after an incident that was “pretty frightening” for his family.
“It kind of opens your eyes to how dangerous the game can be and that it could end any day,” he said. “You never know when this could be your last game. I just feel lucky that I can continue playing in the next week or so.”
Although he wasn’t seriously injured, Nicholls believes the Shinnimin hit was comparable to the Michael Liambas foul that resulted in the former Erie Otter being kicked out of the Ontario Hockey League last winter for injuring the Kitchener Rangers’ Ben Fanelli, who suffered a fractured skull.
“Just like that Liambas hit last year, I think it could even be worse than that,” Nicholls said. “It’s just the fact that I didn’t crack my skull or anything serious like that, it’s not all over the place and it’s not (considered) that serious, but I think it’s just as bad as that one.”
Shinnimin’s infraction gained more exposure during the Thanksgiving weekend, while the WHL pondered a suspension and major TV networks showed the footage.
And partly because Nicholls is a Leafs’ prospect, the story picked up momentum in Toronto. Nicholls got a taste of that media madness last month during the Leafs’ training camp.
“It’s definitely something different,” he said. “You don’t see that anywhere else. You’re just known everywhere you go there, even being a draft pick.”
Although he repeatedly apologized to Nicholls and the Blades, Shinnimin didn’t consider his boarding penalty as severe as the Liambas hit, or the Patrice Cormier elbow to the head of Michael Tam during a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game last season.
“It was obviously a bad hit — the hit I made — but I didn’t intend to injure him,” Shinnimin said. “I didn’t go for the head or anything like that. I was just backchecking pretty hard and I gave him a bump and he went into the boards pretty awkwardly.
“I wouldn’t compare it to anything like those hits where they were maybe intentional or a target. That’s not my role and that’s not really what I do.”
After the WHL ruling Tuesday, Nicholls suggested Shinnimin’s penalty doesn’t necessarily fit the crime.
“I’m disappointed at the length,” Nicholls told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
“I think it could have been a bit longer, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. Just got to keep playing.”