Once again the NHL had a chance to send a strong message to protect its players, and once again it blew the call.
It’s a miracle this decision, or non-decision, didn’t launch a modern day version of the 1955 Rocket Richard riots in Montreal. Then again, in a sense, it did.
This time, the battle zone was not the old Montreal Forum but the forum of twitter, where the non-suspension sparked a frenzy of polarized views ranging from outrage at a perceived injustice to outright support for Chara “finishing his check.”
Internet egg-throwing. Back and forth it raged.
No, this was not an easy call. To some degree, the NHL hockey operations staff had to dabble in the business of reading Chara’s mind to determine his intent to injure, and the league interpreted innocence, not vengeance, saw “a hockey play,” not a hit to hurt.
That “hockey play,” knocked Max Pacioretty out cold Tuesday night — deathly still he lay face down on the ice — before coming to and being taken to hospital, where the Canadiens forward was diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of the fourth vertebrae and a concussion.
It’s unlikely Pacioretty will play again this season, although for now his status, says Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin is simply, “out indefinitely.”
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, Pacioretty’s agent, Alex Schall, delivered an encouraging message on Twitter:
“Max sounds like himself,” Schall tweeted. “It is going to be a lot of work to heal, but his will power is one of his strengths.”
The nature of the hit, the 6-9 Bruins defenceman riding Pacioretty into the boards, late, compounded by Pacioretty’s head striking the stanchion between the Canadiens and Bruins benches, made it a tricky ruling, but is why the NHL head office is paid the big bucks.
As Martin asked yesterday, following his team’s practice, “where are the limits to the physicality of our game?”
Yes, where are they indeed, in a season that has already witnessed a surge in concussions and the loss of stars like Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Bruins' Marc Savard to head injuries.
Crosby, the face of the NHL, Canada’s Olympic hero just 13 months ago, has been sidelined with post-concussion syndrome since early January and may not return this season. He was on pace to score 64 goals and 132 points, based on his production after 41 games, but is too ill to skate or even train moderately off the ice.
The player who delivered the initial blow to Crosby on Jan. 1, David Steckel, then of the Washington Capitals, now a New Jersey Devil, has shown remorse and has tried to contact Crosby, but the superstar Penguin remains too frustrated to forgive just yet.
The Steckel hit, too, was considered a “hockey play” because the NHL still allows direct contact to the head, as long as it is not a blindside hit.
Ultimately, Mike Murphy of hockey operations made the call on Chara, because senior vice-president, Colin Campbell, has a son, Gregory, who plays for the Bruins.
Was Chara aware the stanchion was there (have to think he did), and did he mean to drive Pacioretty into the post with that much force (probably not)? A player is responsible for his actions, though.
On-ice officials correctly assessed Chara a five-minute major for interference (the puck was far up ice), plus a game misconduct. Murphy, in a statement, said that Chara did not leave his feet, (as if he needs to, at 7-feet tall on skates) and did not target the head of his opponent.
Some of hockey’s most experienced observers speculated Chara would be suspended two to four games, which would have been about right, considering Chara has no previous offences.
While not known as a dirty player, Chara did have a revenge motive. Chroniclers of the Habs-Bruins wars remember Pacioretty’s cocky shove of the Bruins captain back on Jan. 8, after the 22-year-old Pacioretty had scored the overtime winner.
Fans from both camps suspected Pacioretty would have to answer down the road for his insolence. Chara was livid about that shove, pursuing Pacioretty in the corner behind the net, unable to get at him in the ensuing scrum. He got him on Tuesday.
Another factor in the hit: the Bruins were losing 4-0 to Montreal in the dying seconds of the second period, and Chara, if nothing else, saw an opportunity to vent some frustration.
In an eerie coincidence, the Chara hit occurred exactly seven years to the day after Todd Bertuzzi’s March 8, 2004 attack on Steve Moore resulted in three vertebrae fractures, a severe concussion and ultimately ended Moore’s career.
No one compares Chara’s actions to those of Bertuzzi, even if the results could have been as tragic. The arena, and those protruding stanchions, are at least partly to blame for Pacioretty’s injury and should be altered.
Pacioretty has already fought through injuries this season, and will rebound from this hit if anyone can. Until then, he will be sorely missed. In his past 20 games, Pacioretty had 11 goals and 6 assists to lead his team in both categories, while playing in the difficult areas of the ice.
“He added another dimension to our team,” Martin said. “It wasn’t only his speed, but he played a very direct game. He did very good work around the net and in front of the goalie. He was strong on our power play. But it gives an opportunity to someone else in our lineup to seize that chance.”
The NHL also had a chance to send a message to players about respect and responsibility, but went ‘old school’ on the call.