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Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty leads to plenty of talk, but strong action is what's needed

The NHL is taking as many blows to its image as its players are taking needless shots to the head.

March 10, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty lies on the ice in front of his team's bench after being hit into a glass stanchion by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara on Tuesday.
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty lies on the ice in front of his… (Shaun Best / Reuters )

On today's NHL docket of missives, misdeeds and missed calls, we start with a significant sponsor threatening to withdraw its support in protest of a hit that drew no suspension but is being investigated by Montreal police, and another hit that was not penalized Wednesday but drew a three-game suspension Thursday.

For good measure we also have the Montreal Canadiens' owner vowing to stamp out "violent behavior," and the NHL Players' Assn. metaphorically affixing a Band-Aid to a broken neck by saying it will inspect padding around the glass in NHL rinks, when it should have urged its constituents to stop skating outside the boundaries of accepted behavior to knock one another into the hospital.

Just a day in the life of the NHL, which is taking as many blows to its image as its players are taking needless shots to the head.

Late Wednesday, the Ottawa Sun obtained a copy of a letter written by a marketing executive at Air Canada, which owns naming rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs' home rink and runs charter flights for all six Canadian teams and several U.S.-based teams. The letter was a response to the league's decision not to fine or suspend Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara for a late and reckless hit that drove Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty into a stanchion and left the 22-year-old with a concussion and a broken vertebra.

"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," Denis Vandal's letter read. "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."

Vandal also cited "several other incidents involving career-threatening and life-threatening head shots in the NHL recently."

Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking in Washington, called Pacioretty's injury an accident and predictably backed the ruling made by disciplinarian Mike Murphy. Bettman also told Air Canada to take its packaged peanuts and back off.

If the airline takes its sponsorship dollars elsewhere, Bettman said, "that's their prerogative, just like it's 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."

Zing. Put that in your middle seats.

Also on Thursday, Montreal police, at the request of Quebec's ministry of public security, began investigating the hit. So there's the posturing and pontificating of politicians to look forward to because the NHL could not police itself.

In a separate incident, the NHL imposed a three-game suspension against Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina for elbowing the Chicago Blackhawks' Dave Bolland in the head Wednesday. No penalty was called.

If it was bad enough to merit suspending Kubina, why didn't referees Marc Joannette and Tim Peel see it and call it? Postseason officiating assignments are awarded on merit. If these two could miss an offense that warranted a three-game suspension, neither should be on the postseason roster.

Next, we have Geoff Molson, owner of the Canadiens, posting a letter on the team's website saying the league's failure to suspend Chara "shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard."

He added, "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."

Molson said Bettman agreed to make player safety "a priority" at general managers' meetings next week in Boca Raton, Fla.

"We understand and appreciate hockey being a physical sport, but we do not accept any violent behavior that will put the players' health and safety at risk," Molson said. "On this specific issue, I am asking for the support of the 29 other NHL owners, to address urgently this safety issue. And I am willing to play a leadership role in coordinating this group effort."

Good luck. Because Bettman will wait for the furor to fade, which it will. Only to be revived with the next incident.

Finally, Donald Fehr said Thursday that the players' union will inspect the rink in Montreal "to make sure the appropriate padding is in place." Please do. It probably still has Pacioretty's head imprinted on it.

If the union is so concerned with workplace safety, it must go beyond measuring padding and getting rid of seamless glass and implore players to stop hitting one another in the head.

Pacioretty was released from the hospital Thursday to recover at home. In addition to get-well wishes, the league and the union owe him — and every player — an environment in which they do not have to fear becoming the next victim of another stupid head shot.

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