When a major company with the word "Canada" in its name is concerned about brand damage from being associated with the game of hockey, it's time for the National Hockey League to open its eyes and ears.
In the wake of Tuesday's illegal and near-crippling hit by Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens, Air Canada used sharp phrases that one doesn't hear from the game's insiders who tend to dominate public discourse. Its letter to the league referred to "career-threatening and life-threatening headshots," and went on to say, "We are having difficulty rationalizing our sponsorship of hockey unless the NHL takes responsibility to protect both the players and the integrity of the game."
That is the point the NHL needs to accept. The integrity of the game is at stake. It cannot be separated from the safety of the players. Astonishingly, Gary Bettman, the league's commissioner, responded on Thursday by aiming a head shot at Air Canada, suggesting teams could turn to another airline for charter flights.
Like it or not, the NHL is the steward of Canada's game. It is no coincidence that concussions are rampant in the NHL and at every level of youth hockey starting with 11-year-olds. And now that concussions are emerging as a major public-health issue, a new generation will think twice about putting children in organized hockey.
The Chara hit that knocked Mr. Pacioretty unconscious and broke a vertebra in his spine was deemed by the league not worthy of supplemental punishment. Yet it is clear that Mr. Chara, whether or not he had an intent to injure, acted outside the rules and with reckless disregard of the consequences.
After Mr. Pacioretty poked the puck down the ice, Mr. Chara attempted to "finish the check," but the movement brought him from roughly the beginning of the Boston players' bench to the end, a distance of nearly 24 feet. That passage of time and space made any contact illegal interference. Compounding this infraction is that Mr. Chara, who at 6'9'' has the wingspan of a pterodactyl, raised his forearm and brought it up against Mr. Pacioretty's head to prevent him from moving any further down the ice.
The NHL missed an opportunity to show some leadership by punishing Mr. Chara for his head-high restraining manoeuvre. The integrity of the game is in question; the league hasn't shown it has an answer.
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