Athlete’s Angle

On Tuesday, March 8, 2011, hockey fans watched in horror as Max Pacioretty lay motionless on the ice after colliding head first with rink-side stanchion. The injury was the result of a battle along the boards between Pacioretty and defenceman Zdeno Chara, one that saw the larger Bruin separate the Montreal forward away from the puck and toward the unyielding divider between the two player benches.

Pacioretty was rushed to the hospital where it was later announced he had suffered a fracture to his fourth cervical vertebra and a severe concussion.

In the days following the game, the NHL decided that Chara would receive no punishment outside of his previously assessed game misconduct. Being a 13-year veteran and having never been suspended before, Chara’s reputation played some part in Mike Murphy’s decision to forgo extracurricular punishment. This bothers me to no end. The fact that a player has had no previous suspensions should not determine whether or not they receive one. I agree it should alter the length but not play a part in the decision of whether punishment should indeed be dealt.

I believe Chara should be suspended, and here’s why:

First off, hockey is a fast paced game, in which thousands of decisions can be made in a split second. A 13-year veteran should be both aware and comfortable with the pace of the game. There is no doubt in my mind, nor many NHLers, that Chara was fully aware of his location on the ice. There was no change in direction on the play and Chara had plenty of time to make a different decision.

Secondly, Chara’s reaction tells us everything we need to know. If perhaps it was an accident and Chara had not known where the stanchion was, what do you suppose his reaction would be? If you were Chara and were surprised by what had just happened, wouldn’t you stop to see what you did? Isn’t that human nature? Chara never flinched. Not once did he look back or go to the aid of his opponent.

Finally, intent should not be factored in the decision to punish. Was it Chara’s intent to break Pacioretty’s neck? Probably not, but neither was Bertuzzi’s when he attacked Steve Moore. Only Chara knows, but isn’t it conceivable that for one split second he made a bad decision? Isn’t it possible that he was fully aware that the guy he was rubbing out was the very same guy he had three altercations with earlier in the year? Regardless of the unknowable intent, an illegal play occurred, leaving one player seriously injured. Punishment is required.

Many emotional reactions have resulted in the NHL’s decision not to penalize the Boston defender. The people of Montreal have flooded 911 operators with call after call begging for justice. A criminal investigation has been opened at the request of a Quebec director of criminal and penal prosecutions. Air Canada, a major NHL sponsor, has sent a stern letter to the NHL asking for immediate action by the league to stop these career and life-threatening injuries that keep occurring.

The NHL constantly screws up when they have a chance to alter the actions in the league by its players. Earlier this year they could have severely punished the New York Islanders for dressing players for the sole purpose to fight, and Trevor Gillies for dangerous head hits. The message would have been loud and clear. And yet, nothing — much like this incident. In a year in which all major sports have had troubles dealing with concussions, the NHL could have grabbed the bull by the horns instead of being run over by it.

Tune into Athlete’s Angle every Monday at 2 p.m. on UMFM.