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.”