If you’re an honest to goodness fan of professional hockey, there is one thing you know with certainty: given the fast-paced nature of the NHL, on-ice injuries can be brutal, heartbreaking even.
Some of the most hardnosed, no-nonsense hockey enthusiasts will agree that more preventative measures must be taken to ensure the players on the ice aren’t putting their livelihood in danger for no good reason.
The incident that took place earlier this month between Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty, the one in which Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a fracture to his fourth cervical vertebra, was no freak accident. But at the same time it also wasn’t the scene of inhumane, coordinated violence some parties have made it out to be.
To be brief, Chara physically engaged Pacioretty against the boards in what nine times out of 10 would have been a standard hockey play, save for the fact that the two were battling near the player bench and Pacioretty’s head collided with the stanchion. Now, I’m not here implying that Chara’s hit did not warrant punishment — it was, deservedly so, called as interference with a game misconduct — but, rather, that this particular play is not uncommon to the game of hockey, not by a long shot.
Within hours following the frightening incident, sports commentators and media figures alike were weighing in on what had become the biggest news story of the night.
“Glass/boards configuration exacerbated [the hit] in big way. Started as a simple tho late rub out with bad consequences,” TSN analyst Bob Mckenzie posted via Twitter moments after the Pacioretty left the game.
“The dangers of hockey are clear: brick solid players moving 25 miles per hour carrying sticks in a confined area,” said analyst John Saunders on ESPN.com. “If Chara had hit Pacioretty anywhere but next to the glass stanchion he would’ve gotten two minutes for interference and Pacioretty would have skated away. What we’re seeing in hockey is what we’re seeing in football: bigger, faster, stronger athletes in a collision sport.”
Days following the game, it was made public that the NHL was admonishing no further punishment for Chara outside of the interference and game misconduct penalties assessed by the in-game officials. Irked by the decision, major NHL sponsor Air Canada reportedly sent a letter to commissioner Gary Bettman threatening to pull sponsorship dollars unless the league took “immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries.”
Shortly thereafter, NHL sponsor Via Rail drafted their own letter directed at Bettman and the NHL. This letter deemed the post-game ruling “quick and ineffective” and went on to say that it “does nothing to try to reverse the alarming trend of vicious hits that have sidelined some of the game’s greatest talents.”
Rounding out the triad of vested dissenters was Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson who, in an open letter to Montreal fans, referred to the NHL’s decision as one that “shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard.”
In the days following the Chara/Pacioretty aftermath, the apex at which corporate heads aplenty deemed it their responsibility to call out NHL officiating, former NHL All-Star Jeremy Roenick posted his displeasure regarding the situation: “Where were all these critics 10 years ago when hits were as big and as hard as ever!! Stevens on Lindros and Kariya?? It’s a joke!!”
Within a week, hockey-guru Don Cherry also responded to the dissenting voices while on the Coach’s Corner segment of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.
“Tell you one thing, Geoff,” said Cherry to the Canadiens owner, “call all your players together in the dressing room and you [ask them], ‘How do you feel playing 41 games with the boards in Montreal?’ Worst in the league for injuries. Ask them that instead of going in the paper.”
“How about VIA Rail?” Cherry continued, “What a phoney they are jumping on the bandwagon. And Air Canada, you should be ashamed of yourself. By the way, where are their corporate headquarters? We know where they are — Montreal.”
Since Cherry’s statements, Montreal’s team has made efforts to increase safety at the Bell Centre arena by way of additional padding on the bench-side stanchions.
While it is in many senses a triumph that clubs are now more aware of the need to increase safety on the ice, what is still concerning here is the disingenuous nature these organizations portrayed in their statements released to the public. Air Canada, Via Rail and, to a lesser extent, Geoff Molson all released statements that spent as much time evoking a sense of hockey purity gone wrong as they did mentioning the actual Chara/Pacioretty incident.
If we are to take these types of statements on face value, then surely we must also believe that these companies were just as perplexed last year when Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke went unpunished for a blindside headshot that has cast a fog of uncertainty over Marc Savard’s career ever since. Or perhaps earlier this year when concussions resulting from headshots forced Sidney Crosby to sit out the remainder of the season, despite leading the NHL in scoring by, what was at the time, a landslide.
Why, then, if the sight of the best player in the world sitting out due to serious head injury doesn’t raise the ire of major NHL sponsors, does a hit in which the majority of the world’s hockey analysts agree is not indicative of major NHL problems receive so much attention?
To be honest, the best most of us can do is speculate as to the motivations of organizations like Air Canada or Via Rail. At the least, however, it seems satisfactory to admit there’s something askew about these statements, whose timing appears to serve nothing except a political agenda. For some, Roenick’s response via Twitter to the negative commentary following the Pacioretty hit is likely what will resonate the most months after this incident.
It’s great to call out the NHL for a stricter rule set and disciplinary board, but these voices, the Geoff Molsons of the world, simply aren’t the ones who’ve been following the league, each player, each team, in a way that lends itself to an unbiased, earnest voice. These critics come from a place with a specific vested interest and the cynic in me says that if the same incident were to happen in say Dallas or Carolina, the public wouldn’t hear word one from the corporate sponsors.
This is a league in which change is legitimately needed in order to further secure the safety of the players on the ice. In order to effect change, however, the type of change that will positively alter the culture of hockey, we need voices that chime in not just when it is convenient for their business.
The very day after the Chara/Pacioretty hit occurred, Tampa Bay’s Pavel Kubina took a running elbow to the back of Chicago forward Dave Bolland’s head. In hockey terms, the hit was unmistakably malicious and dangerous due to the fact that Bolland was completely vulnerable and unaware contact was coming. The elbow was, rightfully so, cause for a multiple game suspension from the NHL, rightfully so because these are among the clearest examples of the ugly headshots that are sullying the game of hockey. In a week when Canadian media outlets blew up with endless reports on the Chara/Pacioretty fallout, this was without a doubt the ugliest hit of the week.
Feel free to take out your pens and start writing your letters, sponsors. Just because it doesn’t always take place in your backyard doesn’t mean the unsightly stops happening.
Update: Since the writing of this article, Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke has been ejected from a March 20 game for what commentator Pierre McGuire referred to as a flying elbow to the head of an unsuspecting New York player. Chara’s hit on Pacioretty is now likely only the fourth or fifth worst hit of this month alone.