On March 8th, 6’9”, 260 lb. Boston Bruin defenseman Zdeno Chara checked Montreal Canadian left wing Max Pacioretty near the boards, sending the latter violently into a “turnbuckle,” one of two lightly-padded vertical stanchions positioned where the teams’ bench ends and the wall of glass that surrounds a hockey rink begins. The blow knocked Pacioretty to the ice and ultimately sent him to the hospital with a severe concussion and a neck fracture. (Video of the hit can be found here.) Some members of the media have speculated that this could mean the end of the career of the 22-year-old Pacioretty, who only is in his third year playing in the NHL.
Chara was ejected from the game, but after a hearing and reviewing the hit multiple times, the NHL issued no fine or suspension. NHL senior VP of hockey operations, Mike Murphy, stated why:
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.
The logic of this explanation has not placated many Quebecers, who treat hockey as a religion and their Montreal Canadians as high priests. Some even appear to be suffering from severe post-concussive symptoms themselves. Consider the following:
• Call for Criminal Prosecution: According to the Canadian Press, immediately after the hit, fans in Montreal inundated the city's emergency call center, the Canadian equivalent of 911, to report the hit as a crime. Montreal police spokesman Sgt. Ian Lafreniere urged the fans to stop calling unless they had a serious emergency, stating "This shows a serious lack of responsibility." Officer Lafrenier was overruled. Mr. Louis Dionne, Quebec’s Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions, apparently favors a lack of responsibility and announced to the media that his office had indeed requested that the local police open an investigation into Chara's actions. Since then, Montreal police have acted on Dionne's request and started a criminal investigation into the hit. In response, ESPN’s Scott Burnside stated, “[There must be] [n]o unsolved murders, assaults, or break-ins in Montreal that they can spend time and taxpayer dollars to investigate whether a hockey player has run afoul for an on-ice play.”
• Threatened Government Intervention: Some members of the Canadian government also have sought to bask in the anti-Chara limelight. The Toronto Sun reported that certain members of Parliament discussed the hit during a daily Question Period in the House of Commons and that they want the NHL to do more to protect its players. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff reportedly said “there is strong feeling in the House of Commons that if [the NHL doesn’t] act, then, you know, we should get involved. No politician wants to get involved in this, it's not our business. But as a citizen, as a fan, I think it's outrageous.” Again – Doesn’t the Canadian government have higher priorities?
• Air Canada to Clip It’s Own Wings?: Finally, Montreal-based Air Canada announced that it is considering severing its sponsorship relationship with the NHL stating “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.” In response, the NHL retaliated by threatening to boycott Air Canada, which escorts 11 NHL teams across North America as a charter service and is the only foreign airline with an exemption to operate charter flights solely in the U.S. for the purpose of getting NHL teams to and from contests. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated “Air Canada is a great brand, as is the National Hockey League. 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 Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don’t think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service.” It appears that the company’s threat is just a public-relations move to Canadian flyers, given that Air Canada reportedly spends approximately $5M on NHL advertising but makes approximately $20M flying NHL players around North America. Unless Canadian math is fundamentally different than American math, that seems like a losing proposition. Further, such action primarily would harm Canadian-based teams and other Canadian companies, who reportedly receive the vast majority of the airline’s sponsorship dollars.
The Chara hit was nowhere near as severe as many make it out to be, and the highly-questionable focus on Chara distracts from what appears to be the primary culprit in this instance: traditional rink design. If Chara had hit Pacioretty anywhere else on the ice, the latter likely would have gotten up without a scratch. As noted by Scott Burnside, “The Chara hit, as unfortunate as it was, is to me like a lightning strike, a horrible combination of bad timing and poor arena construction.” Eliminating hard obstacles is a common-sense move in any sport where high-speed collisions are possible. By example, over the past several years, NASCAR has spent much effort redesigning the infield walls of its tracks to vastly reduce the chances that any driver losing control of his car will hit those walls at right angles. For all intents and purposes, Pacioretty effectively made head-on contact with a six-inch-wide wall when he made face-first contact with the one of the lightly-padded vertical stanchions at the edges of the rink glass. Most players do their best to avoid hitting opponents other in these areas, but in a fast sport involving split-second decisions, mistakes are easily made. The NHL reportedly will address this turnbuckle issue during upcoming league meetings.
The opinions of the author are his own. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of Morrison Mahoney LLP or any of its clients.