Monday, March 14, 2011

Yet Another NHL Nightmare

The fact that Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara continues to suit up and play is an ongoing indictment of the National Hockey League's commitment to making a dangerous game safer. It's also a reminder that thuggery is alive and well in a sport that celebrates ritualized fisticuffs.

Chara ended the season (and perhaps the career) of Montreal's Max Pacioretty with a vicious late hit. Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a broken neck. If you must, you can see the play in the video clip here--but note that the clip is provided by a website called Yes, you read that correctly.

Full disclosure: 33 years ago, I sustained an injury nearly identical to Pacioretty's: a non-displaced fracture of the C-4 vertebra. Let me tell you, when the doctor enters the room and says "fractured vertebra", your world gets shaken. I got mine by rolling a car off an embankment; Pacioretty got his by having his head slammed into the side of a hockey rink by an opponent who showed no regard for him.

But it's worse. Not only did Chara show no regard for Pacioretty's life and limb, the NHL doesn't much seem to care either. The league hasn't even suspended or fined Chara for the hit (he was ejected from the game in which it happened), but NHL brass is thumbing its nose at Air Canada.

What did Canada's airline do to get involved in this? Basically, it threw down the gloves, to steal a hockey concept. Air Canada told the NHL that if it didn't see the league move aggressively to make the sport safer, it would stop sponsoring hockey. Commissioner Gary Bettman's response, essentially, was "screw you, Air Canada" (read more in this excellent piece by CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen).

Look. It's been 7 years since Todd Bertuzzi assaulted Steve Moore, breaking his neck in one of the most vicious attacks ever seen on a North American field of play. Bertuzzi served a year's suspension and continues to make a fine living playing for the elite Detroit Red Wings. The message: you can try to kill a man on a hockey rink, but sooner or later, the game will welcome you back.

It was easy for many to demonize Bertuzzi. But what he did, and what Chara did the other day, are not isolated acts. The hockey culture promotes right-to-the-edge aggressiveness, rewards those who practice it, and fails to adequately punish the truly shocking incidents. In short: the NHL doesn't care about player safety. And judging by commissioner Bettman's willingness to blow off a responsible corporate partner like Air Canada, it may not care much about its own relevance either.

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