The NHL Just Got Chara’d

March 13th, 2011 by Baxter Leave a reply »

About a year ago, when I wrote about a hit in the OHL, I have to admit that I was close to writing a blog proclaiming that someday, an NHL hockey player will be killed on the ice. I’m not talking about a heart attack, or some one-off freak play involving a skate and a jugular vein (a.k.a. Clint Malarchuk and Neck Guards).

Zdeno Chara hitting Max Pacioretty into arena stanchion

Chara on Pacioretty: One hand off the stick, guiding Pacioretty's head into the stanchion.

I’m talking about a collision. Involving players. Perhaps an unmovable board. Or even a moveable iron hockey net. Or how about a stanchion, a term which until last week, wasn’t even in the vocabulary of most casual hockey fans?

So I never did write that blog, thinking that most readers would think that I was just a bleeding heart, ready to be labelled as a drama-queen.

Now things have changed. In a season already marked by the absence of the league’s biggest star in Sidney Crosby, the thunderous shock of the Chara hit on Pacioretty was only recently bested by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan.

The NHL has certainly taken a credibility hit. I have to hand it to Air Canada (and now VIA rail) for taking a stand. I don’t think much will come of it, as corporate sponsorship threats are often meaningless unless the threats are seen through (for example, the withdrawal of sponsorship for Tiger Woods last year). At least Air Canada took a stand based on principles; whether or not you agree is up to you. Bettman’s reply only made his detractors more inclined to cringe at the thought of another five years with him as Commissioner.

What I don’t understand is why there is so much emphasis placed on Chara’s intent, I point to two particularly glaring examples in hockey where intent is not even questioned:

  1. High-sticking – the idea is that if a player injures another player with a high-stick, no matter if it was by accident, a penalty is assessed. The premise here is that a player must always be in control of his stick at all times, largely to protect other players on the ice. (Rule 60)
  2. Delay of game – a minor penalty is assessed if a player, in his own zone, shoots the puck over the glass, presumably in an attempt to clear the zone (Rule 63.2)

In both cases above, whether you agree with them or not, a penalty is assessed. Intent is never questioned. So why is it that hits from behind, hits to the head, and most notably, the slamming of Pacioretty’s head off the stanchion being addressed by the league based on intent?

Instead, Mike Murphy said “I could not find any evidence to suggest that…Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous. This was a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface.”

Murphy’s first sentence speaks of intent. Again, I’m not clear on why intent even matters. Let’s suppose you drive your car recklessly, hit a pedestrian and kill him. Did you intend to kill someone when you got behind the wheel? Hopefully not. Still, a court would judge you on an involuntary manslaughter. Intent is not considered.

Murphy’s second sentence is even more bizarre. The injury didn’t happen because Pacioretty hit the stanchion. That’s like saying the gunshot victim was injured by the bullet, not by the gunman. It is simply illogical from a cause-and-effect perspective.

(Before you get on me about comparing hockey to the real world, with real laws and police, I’m not of the opinion that a police-led investigation is the right answer either. I’m just using this as an example to bring some rationale to my thinking.)

There have been tons of articles written about the hit, and the notable absence of supplementary discipline. I like big hits as much as any hockey fan. The sport is indeed fast, exciting, physical. What I don’t understand is why the violence has to be wrapped around the phrase “it is part of hockey”. The hockey I love and enjoy playing was best reflected during the Olympics, or watching the World Juniors, where hockey as a sport was defined by speed, skill and passion. Was the men’s Gold Medal game filled with incidents involving stretchers? Was it any less exciting to watch without any appearances from ambulances? My point exactly. Watching someone getting carried off the ice is just not fun.

Even the casual or serious fan of car racing would admit to enjoy watching a spectacular collision. But even though a casual fan watches a car race hoping to see a crash, much like a casual hockey fan watches a hockey game hoping to see a fight, the fan still recognizes that the sport (and the league) leads to protect the players. No one wants to see someone get killed. The F1 circuit and NASCAR have very specific rules which are designed to protect the drivers, including mandating how other drivers conduct themselves and drive responsibly in the race. Of course it took a few casualties on the race course before these rules were put into place.

Does the NHL want to wait until a player dies on the ice before it takes action? There is, at least in my mind, a simple solution for this. For hits to the head, remove the intent question, and have mandatory suspensions/disciplinary action (much like automatic penalties for high-sticking or delay of game). Then, assess intent separately if the league thinks it is that important.

As was pointed out recently, when netting was installed following the death of a 13 year old spectator who was killed by an errant puck, the NHL responded. Was there intent on the part of the players on the ice to kill someone? Of course not! Can anyone name the player who shot the puck? Probably not…and the point is, it doesn’t even matter. The NHL recognized a situation, left out the intent question, and did the right thing. I’m hoping they will come to their senses and look at mandatory suspensions instead of wringing their hands over whether or not Chara intended to hurt Pacioretty.

Stay classy, Max Pacioretty. I’m glad they didn’t have to name a rule after you posthumously.

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2 comments

  1. Henrik says:

    Espen Knutsen.

  2. Jacko says:

    Bad example. Intent is the WHOLE point of an “involuntary” manslaughter charge. Otherwise it is assessed as murder.

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