Fans and sponsors may leave hockey after the league's weak response to a gruesome hit


That creaking, croaking, ice-cracking sound you may have heard this past week came from the National Hockey League, which saw its already miserable season slide from bad to worse.

Attendance in the league's southern tier is generally abysmal. Wayne Gretzky's old team, the Phoenix Coyotes, are mired in a mess involving an ownership sale. The league's best and most marketable player, Sidney Crosby, has been felled for months now by a concussion, the result of a cheap hit by an opposing player. And now one of the NHL's biggest corporate sponsors, Air Canada, is threatening to pull its name from endboards, sideboards and elsewhere because of the dubious way off-ice league officials reacted to a horrific incident that occurred in a game in Montreal this past Tuesday evening.

A life-long Canadiens' fan, I saw the whole thing live on television. A huge, hulking, skilled defenseman for the Boston Bruins, a 6'9," 260-pound ball of fury named Zdeno Chara, nearly killed Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty during the second period of the game. As Pacioretty tried to scoot past the lumbering Chara, the defenseman lunged at him and violently pasted Pacioretty's head into a stanchion separating the glassed portion of the rink with its non-glassed portion. I have been watching hockey faithfully for nearly 40 years and I cannot remember a more devastating hit. You can watch it for yourself here or in hundreds of other places on the web.

Chara broke Pacioretty's neck—a non-displaced fracture of his fourth cervical vertebrae—and gave the 22-year-old US-born player a severe concussion (a commotion cerebral, as the Quebecois lyrically call it). Pacioretty was millimeters away from paralysis. On-ice officials promptly penalized Chara and kicked him out of the game. Montreal's famous fans nevertheless erupted in righteous fury, demanding that the Bruins' captain be suspended and fined as well. Boston, with its Bruins already battered themselves this year by cheap shots and concussions, rationalized the incident away. Chara played his dutiful part in the kabuki dance. He said what the transgressors always say in these incidents, which is that he didn't mean to render his opponent unconscious by using his own body as a lethal weapon.

Already under pressure from fans and others for a series of weak responses to on-ice mayhem, the NHL nonetheless announced Wednesday, a mere 14 hours after the hit, that Chara would not be penalized further. Even though Chara's conduct warranted an in-game penalty, the NHL declared, it was not so far beyond hockey's pale that it warranted more. Here is the meat of the NHL's statement from Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy:

After a thorough review of the video I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly—with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards. I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, that Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous.

This was a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface. In reviewing this play, I also took into consideration that Chara has not been involved in a supplemental discipline incident during his 13-year NHL career.

In other words, sorry Max, but that's just life in the National Hockey League, a world in which everyone apparently gets one free chance to ruin someone else's life. Murphy's dodge didn't mention the fact that the two players had a bit of a gritty history together. Pacioretty had given Chara an extra shove at the end of a game earlier in the season, which Chara visibly did not appreciate, a prior episode which any jury in the world would have taken as establishing a motive for Chara's conduct on Tuesday. Irrelevant though that history may have been to Murphy, it was relevant enough to Montreal's finest. By week's end, the local cops were said to be conducting a criminal investigation into the matter to see if Chara's assault upon Pacioretty's person with deadly force constitutes a crime in the Province of Quebec.

Air Canada officials evidently already have rendered their own verdict. To their eternal credit, they viewed the Chara hit, and the League's feckless response to it, as part of a spiraling pattern of on-ice violence and off-ice condonation by league officials. Here is part of what Air Canada executives wrote in their letter to the NHL:

From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality. Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey.

The beleaguered Commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman, responded to the scandal Thursday with astonishing tone-deafness, even for him. Of the underlying incident, Bettman said: "Our hockey operations people are extraordinarily comfortable with the decision that they made," Bettman said. "It was a horrific injury, we're sorry that it happened in our fast-paced physical game, but I don't think whether or not supplemental discipline was imposed would change what happened and in fact the people in the game who I have heard from almost to a person ... believe that it was handled appropriately by hockey operations."

Which is precisely the point the NHL has consistently missed. If Chara's hit is, indeed, just "a part of the game," then the game had better change—now, today —before it alienates more fans and sponsors and injures more players. That means the rules of engagement on the ice must change. This is not your grandfather's hockey. The players are bigger, stronger and faster. Their skates are better. So is the ice. The only thing that hasn't changed are the dimensions of the ice surface. You do the math. The same thing is happening in football. You think the NFL would have let something like this go without a fine or suspension? No way.

And it means that good old boys like Murphy, and his boss Colin Campbell, the already-disgraced senior NHL disciplinarian, have to go (Campbell recused himself from consideration of this case because his son plays for the Bruins). No more dissembling justifications for near-deadly violence. No more weasel words and tautologies that these incidents are "hockey plays" because they are hockey plays. No more lawyerly dissections that wouldn't pass a straight-face test in court. The NHL this week in the wake of L'Affaire Chara asked its world-wide community: Who are you going to believe when it comes to judging what's wrong in hockey, us or your own eyes? And Air Canada's response speaks for millions.

But Bettman isn't listening. Of the Air Canada threat, Bettman responded with one of his own. He said: "Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative. It is the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don't think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service." Trashing Air Canada over Canada's national sport in this instance wasn't just reckless. It was profoundly offensive to Pacioretty and all of the other League players who have been sidelined this year as a result of violent play—not to mention hockey players everywhere who have suffered injuries from rough play. Besides, especially now, who do you suppose needs who more? Air Canada or the NHL?

Can you imagine Bud Selig publicly going after an advertiser like that in the middle of a scandal on behalf of Major League Baseball? Can you imagine the NFL threatening Ford or any of its beer sponsors? As if the Chara verdict were not enough, the Air Canada flap—a palace revolt, you could say—demonstrates that Bettman's time has passed, too. His most important job this week in the wake of the Chara hit was to calm emotions, not inflame them; to bring people together, not to act tough with a sponsor. The NHL can justifiably claim it is not entirely responsible for its attendance problems. But it cannot duck this. Suspend enough players who do what Chara did and pretty soon fewer players will do it. Bettman's failure over this issue is a failure of leadership and it is a grievous one.

The NHL player's union? Try again. Citing "player safety," the NHLPA's executive director, Don Fehr, the same fellow who gave us the baseball strike of 1994-1995, blamed the configuration of Montreal's rink and the stanchion, which is akin to blaming the brick wall for being hit by the head of the fellow who has just been shoved into it. In an ideal world, the players would self-regulate to avoid such unnecessary violence. But for decades now they have proven that they cannot and the problem is getting worse, not better.

We all know how this is going to end otherwise. It's going to end with a casket. At center ice. One of these days, a player is going to be killed live and in HD during a game we all are watching from our seats or our homes. The whole world is going to see it. And then the NHL's lawmakers, the suits who justify and defend this level of violence in the name of competition and tradition, will come before us, tears in their eyes and blood on their hands, to honor the fallen and to beg forgiveness. So much of it is so avoidable.   

There is one final point that needs to be made—another problem generated by the League's cowardice this week. If Chara is not punished further for his conduct, or the League does not take some other drastic action, there will be some sort of a public demonstration or riot in Montreal the next time he and the Bruins come to town. I am not merely predicting this. I am all but guaranteeing it will occur based upon historical precedent. Montreal, the so-called "city with a heart," rioted on March 17, 1955 after NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended Canadiens icon Maurice "Rocket" Richard for hitting a ref in a game against, who else, the Boston Bruins.

Red Fisher, who started his career covering the Canadiens that very night, is still covering the team today for the Montreal Gazette. Of Chara's hit, and the NHL's reaction, Fisher wrote: "It is so unfair. So difficult to understand. So senseless. So wrong." On Thursday afternoon, the Canadiens management, angry and also recognizing the depth of anger among its relentless fan base, called for a sort of calm. Geoff Molson, whose family has been a part of the fabric of Montreal and the Canadiens on and off for over 100 years, assured fans in an email that the team intends to take up Pacioretty's cause when NHL executives meet next week in Florida. Molson wrote:

The Montreal Canadiens organization does not agree with the decision taken yesterday by the National Hockey League. We can assure you that we have made our position clear to Commissioner Gary Bettman, and that he has agreed to make this issue a priority at the next General Manager's meeting, which will be held in Florida on March 14-16.  Pierre Gauthier, our General Manager, will be present at this meeting and has already expressed his wish to carry out, clearly, our message to his 29 counterparts and to the League.

Our organization believes that the players' safety in hockey has become a major concern, and that this situation has reached a point of urgency. At risk are some of the greatest professional athletes in the world, our fan base and the health of our sport at all levels. Players' safety in hockey must become the ultimate priority and the situation must be addressed immediately. As a proud father of three hockey players, I want to help create a healthy and safe experience for them, and I certainly never want any family to go through what the Pacioretty's are experiencing at this moment.

Air Canada and the Molson family are cornerstones of the NHL. They mean more to the League than most. On this vital topic, they are telling Bettman and Company to lead, follow or get out of the way. Which is more than anyone offered as choices to poor Max Pacioretty.

Photo: Montreal Canadiens left wing Max Pacioretty lies on the ice after being hit by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. By Reuters/Shaun Best

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