By Stu Hackel
It's been a very hard couple of days for those of us who love hockey. Our first concern has to be for Max Pacioretty, whose future is uncertain -- and not just as a player. The hockey world came only millimeters away from talking about his paralysis and he faces a difficult recovery.
Our second concern has to be for the state of the sport because by failing to suspend the Bruins' Zdeno Chara for even a couple of games, the NHL -- once again -- showed weakness instead of strength. It should have taken a harder stand on willfully dangerous play and other incidents that have cast the sport as barbaric and repugnant. It failed last year when Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke escaped punishment for concussing Boston's Marc Savard. It failed when it reacted with minimal punishment last month after the Penguins-Islanders debacle. It fails with more consistency than it applies to punishing those who cross the line. Once again, it has failed to protect its players and its own image.
Pacioretty's words from Montreal General Hospital (relayed through TSN's Bob McKenzie in the video embedded above and this story) are all one needs to know about this failure: "I am upset and disgusted that the league didn't think enough of (the hit) to suspend him," Pacioretty said. "I'm not mad for myself, I'm mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it's okay, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt....I believe he was trying to guide my head into the turnbuckle. We all know where the turnbuckle is. It wasn't a head shot like a lot of head shots we see, but I do feel he targeted my head into the turnbuckle."
All the apologists and all the rationales being used to justify the league's poor judgment can't change this fact: Zdeno Chara broke the rules and injured a player doing so. What he did was, at minimum, reckless. Time and time again, we've seen decisions by the NHL where Colin Campbell or Mike Murphy suspend a player and in their statement say, "Although Player X didn't intend to injure Player Y, his actions were reckless. Players have to be responsible for their conduct on the ice." Too often, those suspensions are too lenient, but the player is suspended nevertheless. For some unexplained reason, even that logic didn't apply this time.
We've stated this a few times during the season and we'll say it again: What the league does in these matters is of critical importance, particularly in demanding the highest level of understanding of the game, where it is, where it should go and where it shouldn’t go. The league’s role in hockey matters is to rise above the rationalizations, excuses and partisanship, and monitor the competition so that every transgression is fairly addressed in a manner that preserves the game’s integrity. The NHL alone has the responsibility of acting on what is good for the game and what is not. And if it does not take appropriate action against what is not, the bad stuff will continue and even grow.
This is not to personally impugn Murphy, who made the Chara decision, or Campbell, who makes most of the others. They do their jobs gathering information and listening to all the principals involved, and their deliberations usually include seeking other opinions from experienced hockey minds. This latest decision is not on Murphy and Campbell as much as it is on the system and the standards the NHL uses to police itself because that system is inadequate for today's game. The game is faster, the players are bigger, these incidents occur at a lightning pace, and the players are seriously injuring each other at a greater rate than ever before. They understand that and have stated so repeatedly.
There are also more suspensions than ever before, but they are obviously not serving as a deterrent because these incidents keep happening, The only way to get the players to change their behavior is with tougher discipline. That is not happening. And so the injuries will continue and they will continue to be severe -- and this was the most frightening one yet.
The report by Bruce Garrioch of The Ottawa Sun that Air Canada, one of the NHL's largest financial corporate backers, is threatening to withdraw its sponsorship if the league doesn't take "immediate" and "serious" action on headshots cannot be ignored. It is the first public indication that a major sponsor is seriously concerned about the direction -- or lack of it -- in the NHL today.
"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," wrote Denis Vandal, Air Canada's director of marketing/communications. "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."
That should speak loudly to the highest executives of the NHL, to the owners, general managers, coaches, players and NHLPA about how poorly they have managed this area of the game. They're also not going to like the fact that, however partisan it may be, Montreal police are now investigating Chara's hit as a criminal matter.
The league also can't like the fact that Geoff Molson, the Canadiens owner, has taken the unusual step this afternoon of publicly criticizing the decision, something that has rarely been done by an owner during the Gary Bettman era, calling the decision wrong and saying "it was one which shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard....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." (Molson's entire statement here)
If that's not enough, there's the TSN internet poll that, as of this writing, had about two-thirds of their nearly 24,000 respondents saying they found the NHL's handling of the Chara incident to be poor.
If that is not enough, there are the words of Canada's Minister of State for Sport, Gary Lunn, who said the government had consulted with national sporting organizations on the issue. "It is something that we hope that the NHL also takes very seriously. This type of hitting is unacceptable," Lunn said. "We would do everything to ensure that NHL does not allow this kind of action to continue."
If that is not enough, there's Canada's Liberal Party Leader, Michael Ignatieff, who told reporters after the NHL made its decision not to suspend Chara, "I simply don't understand what the NHL is thinking here. It's up to the National Hockey League to protect its players. It's up to the National Hockey League to protect all the young kids playing the game. It's up to the National Hockey League to act and I can tell you, there is strong feeling in the House of Commons that if they don'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 citizens, as a fan, I think it's outrageous."
And if that is not enough, there are the parents of young children, like The Globe and Mail's Sean Gordon, who have to question whether watching NHL games is suitable for kids or whether they want to let theirs play this sport that is like no other when it's played right.
But the NHL cannot see what is right. As SI.com's Michael Farber wrote yesterday, the league has lost its moral compass. It may be out of touch with its fans and even its sponsors, but most alarmingly, it is out of touch with itself.