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Chara's hit calls his character into question

By Stu Hackel

At noon Wednesday, NHL Vice President Mike Murphy -- who stands in for Colin Campbell on all matters pertaining to games involving the Boston Bruins -- conducted a phone hearing with Zdeno Chara. The towering defenseman's hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty  on Tuesday night resulted in a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra that puts Pacioretty's career at risk. It is the talk of hockey right now -- and probably will be the unfortunate talk outside of hockey -- with debate raging on whether Big Z should be suspended and, if so, how long the suspension should be.

Murphy's unenviable task is to figure out if this was a) just a hockey play gone bad, as Chara's defenders claim, b) a reckless and irresponsible act by a generally honorable player, for which he'd receive a suspension for a few games or c) an intentional attempt to injure, worthy of a longer suspension. A case can be made for all three but the guess here is that Murphy will choose the middle ground.

[UPDATE: The Bruins have tweeted that they've been informed by the NHL there will be no fine and no suspension for Chara's hit. The NHL released a statement shortly afterward calling it a hockey play gone bad.]

No, Zdeno Chara has never been a dirty player. He has played a tough, hard physical game and knows how to use his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame to great advantage. There isn't a team in the NHL that wouldn't be happy to have him wearing its sweater.

Chara should be commended for speaking to the media after the game (video) and explaining his side, because many athletes who have committed less heinous acts would have hidden from cameras. He's been a stand-up guy who is generally -- although not universally -- well-respected, which is why many are rushing to defend him.

None of that excuses what he did, however. The hit was late. Pacioretty had chipped the puck forward and it was nowhere near him as Chara drove Pacioretty's head into the padded stanchion with his forearm ( here's a close-up photo). As Cam Cole writes in The Vancouver Sun, "It is no accident that some of my media colleagues have already made the comparison -- the only other sports figure I can recall seeing stopped so sickeningly by head-first impact with an immovable object was that of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He died on the spot." Phillipe Cantin of La Presse who saw it live said many in the Bell Centre press gallery had the same reaction.

Pacioretty is somewhat more fortunate, but he's not in good shape.

This may not be the popular opinion outside of Quebec, but regardless of what Murphy decides, the case for the intentional attempt to injure should not be lightly dismissed, although Chara no doubt didn't intend this outcome, to break Pacioretty's neck.

The temperature of this old rivalry has risen dramatically during the season and in no small measure because of the incident on Jan. 8 when Pacioretty scored the game-winner in overtime, finishing a late third period comeback that erased a 2-0 Boston lead and continued the B's frustrations against Montreal -- they'd now lost eight of the previous nine to the Habs. Pacioretty gave Chara an unnecessary little shove in the back, literally rubbing it in, and the Bruins captain lost his composure and went ballistic trying to get at Pacioretty...

...for which he was assessed a 10-minute misconduct. The next meeting between the two teams resulted in 182 penalty minutes and a dozen fighting majors as Boston brawled its way to a win, and when Chara tried to fight Pacioretty, the Canadiens winger refused. In the game's last minute, Boston's Adam McQuaid, totally unprovoked, horsecollared Pacioretty, wrestled him down and started punching, inexplicably getting only a double minor and not an instigator and fighting major, which he deserved. Pacioretty got nothing.

But, as we pointed out yesterday, both teams were preaching discipline coming into Tuesday's game. There was too much on the line to engage in personal vendettas. Still, Pacioretty realized, as he was quoted by Marc Antoine Godin in La Presse saying on Tuesday, "I've always played well against them and I know I have a bit of a target on my back." Guess so.

With the Canadiens playing what may have been their best game of the season, stifling Boston and scoring at 15:09 of the second period to make it 4-0, it is not inconceivable that Chara found himself in position a few minutes later to administer a little payback to a guy he and his teammates don't like. It would be a selfish thing to do, but with the frustrations of the evening mounting, Chara well may have lost it again.

Would it be out of character? Not according to one guy who covered Chara in Ottawa, Le Droit's Sylvain St-Laurent, who on the blog "La Chambre Rouge" writes that after he saw that little shove in January, "I was convinced that Chara would eventually take revenge. I rubbed shoulders with the giant defender on a daily basis for four years. I always thought he was one of the most selfish and individualistic stars in the NHL." According to St-Laurent, Chara is someone who "does not forget easily."

Then there's the argument that had Chara made that same play anywhere else on the ice, it would have been a simple interference penalty. Instead, it was an unfortunate accident of geography that Pacioretty and Chara were headed for the turnbuckle. Certainly there are times when things do happen accidentally on the ice, but watching how Chara used his arm to drive Pacioretty's head into the padded upright makes it hard to believe he didn't know what he was doing and where he was on the ice.

It's a point that Carey Price made after the game (video). So did Bruins TV analyst Gord Kluzak, who believes this was a hockey play gone bad and who also tried to excuse Chara by saying he may not have known exactly where he was. Kluzak later amended that to say, "As players, you're always somewhat aware of something that's that dramatic, that kind of a solid beam....You have to be aware of where those things are."

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It's hard to know Chara's intent for certain, and one doesn't want to think he'd purposely try to injure a player. But it's known to happen with others. Chara obviously can lose control of his emotions -- especially when Pacioretty is involved -- and the frustrations of the moment may have gotten the better of him at the wrong instant. The results appear to be fairly devastating.

Regardless, this fierce rivalry has another violent chapter and a fresh video clip that will do the NHL no good. As with the most recent 10-game suspension of the Islanders' Trevor Gillies, a stronger stance by the NHL after the last Montreal-Boston game might have served as a preemptive strike to discourage this reckless, if not dirty, play. It was a point Cantin made today when he wrote, "Pacioretty's injury might have been avoided if the NHL had sent a clear message to both teams after the Feb. 9 meeting in Boston. The fights were many, both goalies even came to blows, but the NHL has played all these crazy things as a friendly nod to the good old days, when brawls between the Bruins and the Canadiens were commonplace. No fines, no suspensions, no nothing!"

Similarly, we wrote at the time that the league should have meted out some supplementary discipline for the nonsense at the end of the game, if just to keep the game's balance in check. Gregory Campbell should have gotten something for whipping Tom Pyatt's face with his elbow pad. There are supposed to be rules against what McQuaid did to Pacioretty; when one instigates a fight in the final five minutes, he receives an instigator minor penalty, a major for fighting, and a game misconduct  and is subject to a one-game suspension. But he got a double minor instead. Hockey Ops should have suspended him anyway. But, as Cantin said, no fines, no suspensions, no nothing.

And now this.

One supposes there is an element of the fans who called for blood that today are glad to see Pacioretty concussed with a broken neck. These opinions on what is acceptable and unacceptable in hockey are yet another consequence of the league's leniency. We quoted one of them, NESN's Douglas Flynn yesterday, who wrote, “Getting the two points is paramount. Cracking a few heads along the way is just a bonus.”

Well, he got half of what he wanted. Hope he likes his bonus.