Two thoughts immediately come to mind in the aftermath of the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty, which sent the Montreal Canadiens' forward to the hospital Tuesday night.
One focuses on the argument that if Chara, the Bruins' 6-foot-9 defender, had ridden Pacioretty out of the play five feet earlier or five feet later in the shift, there would be no discussion about the play at all. It would have just been one in a million rub-outs along the boards that happen every day at every level of hockey - so common as to be unremarkable.
What set this hit apart was its location - by the benches where the plexiglass makes a dangerous U-turn - a tricky place to be on the ice in other words. If you've played the game as long as Chara has, you have to know that this is perilous territory and you need to act accordingly.
Just in case someone missed the memo, the whole point of the current discussion about player safety at every level of the game is to change players' attitudes towards each other on the ice.
The message is supposed to be that when an opponent is in a vulnerable position (face to the glass, in open ice and not able to see a collision coming, or by the benches, where the dasher boards come up to waist level and sometimes the gate is wide open as players skate by), it's okay to ease up.
In the case of Chara on Pacioretty, the puck was long gone anyway. It was up to Chara to read the situation, and plot a different defensive course of action. The argument that accidents happen shouldn't hold any water when Chara has his disciplinary hearing with NHL vice-president Mike Murphy today (Colin Campbell, the normal disciplinary czar, recused himself because his son, Gregory, plays for the Bruins).
The second broader issue revolves around Chara's stature in the game, which is immeasurably greater than say, Trevor Gillies of the New York Islanders, Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning or Sean Avery of the New York Rangers. It is much easier to assess discipline against the league's primary agitators, the guys who routinely find themselves called on the NHL carpet for their various transgressions.
Chara is in a completely different category. He won the 2009 Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman. He averages more than 25 minutes per night of playing time for a Bruins team in a pitched five-way battle for top spot in the Eastern Conference. He is arguably their most valuable player after goaltender Tim Thomas and represents one of the NHL's truly elite players.
Justice is supposed to be blind, but oh my that principle is easier to defend when it is framed as a theoretical possibility. Now the NHL has come up against a hard reality of potentially disciplining one of its star attractions at a critical time of the season, on a play that some will argue is just pure bad luck. It will be intriguing to see which path the league goes down here and how well the interests of Pacioretty, the injured party, will be served.