Dangerous Terrain for NHL

Today, Boston Bruins fans are breathing a sigh of relief.

After having not seen justice served following injurious hits delivered to the head of star playmaking center Marc Savard, the Bruins can at least take solace in the fact that their most important player – captain and defensive stalwart Zdeno Chara – will not be suspended for the vicious hit he delivered to the head of Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty on Tuesday night.

“But wait,” you say. “Chara didn’t hit Pacioretty in the head. Chara checked Pacioretty into the boards, and Pacioretty was just unlucky to have absorbed the hit at the precise moment he was passing the stanchion (at high speed). There is no rule against a hit to the boards (nor any rules regarding hits into the stanchions), and we don’t want to take the physicality out of the game.”

Here’s the thing. To establish that criteria for evaluating Chara’s action – that it was a “hockey play” – fails to consider the falling-dominoes storyline that played itself out here.

First for the hit itself. That Chara didn’t hit Pacioretty in the head directly – but rather used the stanchion as a “prop” that delivered the hit – made it no less a hit to the head. And there’s good reason to doubt the prevailing storyline that Chara didn’t mean to hurt/injure Pacioretty.

When Chara’s path was intersecting Pacioretty’s along the boards, the stanchion was directly in front of Chara, clearly within his field of vision.

The presumption that the hit was an accident is actually quite an insult to Chara’s terrific, precise style of play. Chara is very familiar with the Bell Centre rink, having played in the Northeast Division for 10 years, so he knew the stanchion was there. And he delivered what turned out to be a perfectly-timed hit, using the stanchion to great effect in eliminating Pacioretty from the play (and in all likelihood, for the remainder of the 2010-11 season).

Next, for the motive. Chara and Pacioretty have a recent history of tension, dating back to when Pacioretty shoved Chara after scoring the overtime game-winning goal on January 8th…

And continuing last month, when the Habs and Bruins racked up a combined 187 penalty minutes in a donnybrook-filled contest…

That Chara doesn’t have a history of violence or suspendible offenses isn’t relevant, at least not insomuch as whether this deserved a suspension. To paraphrase fellow Inside Hockey columnist Josh Provost, first-time murderers are still murderers nonetheless.

The fact that Chara has gone 13 seasons without a suspension is a testament to his on-ice discipline and to the precision of his game. But it doesn’t excuse him for what took place on Tuesday night, or at least it shouldn’t.

Here’s hoping that the league quickly follows up the decision not to suspend Chara with a new rule that prohibits direct hits to those stanchions (and that also mandates more significant padding around the stanchions). The NHL claims to be taking the issue of head hits seriously, but it’s hard to pay those claims much heed when they’re followed up with arguments suggesting that what Chara did was a “good hockey play.”

What Chara did was take advantage of a loophole in the rules, one that allows for players to use “props” in order to deliver violent head hits. Unless the rules explicit prohibit an action (for example, boarding), it’s “all on” for hits that will ultimately result in an opponent getting his bell rung, so long as the initial contact isn’t with that player’s head, and so long as that initial contact isn’t governed by rules such as boarding or hitting from behind.

Indeed, the only good argument for not suspending Chara would be in service to the Bruins, who have already been done such a grave disservice by the league’s handling of prior head hits delivered to Bruins players.

In all of this, there’s a bad precedent that’s continuously being sustained, one where the league is refusing to establish more stringent guidelines despite the overwhelming evidence that changes are needed.

Padding should be soft, not hard; the protective gear the players wear is as much weaponry as armor, and the number and severity of head injuries would be reduced dramatically if the padding offered protection to both the deliverer and the recipient of hockey’s violent hits and collisions. Doing a better job of managing what types of hits are/aren’t allowed – and doing a better job of ensuring that the player’s protective gear isn’t more weapon than protection – would be two very easy steps toward preventing potentially lethal hits.

The league’s narrow evaluation of these types of hits and situations, and it establishes an environment in which loopholes are the de rigueur method for exacting the kind of mayhem on the ice that ultimately serves to undermine the league’s credibility as a whole. If the league could respond as quickly as it did to Sean Avery’s distraction techniques against Devils goalie Martin Brodeur during the 2008 playoffs, there’s no reason why they can’t take a similar approach to players using the stanchions to wipe opponents out of plays.

In the event that an on-ice death occurs, there’s little reason to believe that an inevitable resulting influx of bloodthirsty fans will be but a mere percentage of those fans who turn away from the NHL forever.

Indeed, it is clear that the benefits of “Old Time Hockey” are outweighed dramatically by its costs, and that encouraging such barbarianism is a surefire way for the NHL to truly send itself on a “treadmill to obscurity.”

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8 Responses to “Dangerous Terrain for NHL”

  1. doogie
    March 11, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Excellent, rational post.

    After a few days of shrill hysteria, this was needed.

  2. Pad the stanchions or put glass up at the player benches - don't blame Chara
    March 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    Sorry, but I have to disagree the stanchions (in all hockey arenas) are an accident waiting to happen and I’m surprised it has taken this long for a player to be seriously injured as a result of a check or even a slip in this area of the arena.

    Many times players have been checked over the boards into the benches (because they are the only spot on the ice with no glass) and/or narrowly avoiding contact with the stanchions where the glass begins/ends.

    All of this could be avoided if you put glass around the player benches, or if you pad the stanchions.

    Accidents unfortunately happen – this was one, get over it and look at how to make it safer, don’t blame Chara for this one. Oh, and by the way, I’m a hab fan!

  3. Stan N
    March 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    You talk about Chara “knowing” the stanchion was there because he played there so often.
    Shouldn’t then Pacioretty have known even more that it was there and done something to avoid it.
    There was a play in the Leafs-Flyers game where van Riemsdyk was skating in a similar area yet pulled away from the play to avoid it

  4. Kevin Greenstein
    March 11, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Thanks for the comments. The thing is, I don’t think Pacioretty could have done anything to avoid what happened. He couldn’t have possibly known that Chara would perfectly time a check sideways into that stanchion. And honestly, if Pacioretty were the type of player to cower away in fear any time a player of Chara’s stature could do him harm, he wouldn’t be in the NHL. So let’s not blame the victim, and let’s not suggest that he should have shown some cowardice in order to prevent what happened. Watch the play again. Chara’s hit was perfectly timed, and he directed Pacioretty right into a stanchion. Nothing more need be said. The fact that the act wasn’t typical of Chara’s career – or that Chara shouldn’t be responsible for putting padding on the stanchion – has nothing do with the inherently dangerous nature of his act. He lined Pacioretty up and removed him from both the play and the season, driving him headfirst into a stanchion. By definition, that’s a hit to the head, and a suspension was deserved. By not suspending Chara – and by not immediately altering the rules a la Sean Avery – the league is sending a terrible message. Just as it did when they failed to suspend Cooke for his hit on Savard.

  5. Tom Stanek
    March 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    I agree Kevin, as hits to the head intended or not are out of control. Gary Bettman and the NHL need strict enforcement right now to put an end to it.

  6. Chuck
    March 11, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    Stan,

    Completely disagree with you. Not that it matters but Chara has likley played as many games at the Bell Centre as Pacioretty who is a rookie.

  7. Jay MF
    March 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    I feel strongly that this ‘ injury ‘ is the result of a SERIOUS design flaw of our arenas in general. I am not the only one who feels this way as I have read many comments on discussion boards to this effect. If there was a dangerous obstacle on my job-sight, WCB would be all over it and have the hazard removed! I do feel that the steps that have been taken to eliminate dangerous hits from the game are a step in the right direction, and there will always be those in the heat of the game that will push it past the limit, the next step is to legislate our athletes a safe work environment. Now it is up to the engineers to come up with a solution that works for everybody.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bruins Looking to Put Distractions Behind | INSIDE HOCKEY - March 24, 2011

    [...] BOSTON – When the last two teams met back on March 8th, the Bruins had a chance to create some distance from the Montreal Canadiens in the Northeast division standings. Instead, the Habs got the best of the Bruins and Zdeno Chara escaped discipline after his hit on Max Pacioretty. [...]