Montreal police confirmed they opened a criminal investigation Thursday into the devastating hit that placed Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty in the hospital with a cracked vertebra.
Police said they were acting on a complaint about the shot delivered by Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara earlier this week.
The move came as people outside the hockey world piled onto the league, with federal politicians and a major NHL sponsor expressing outrage over a hit that failed to draw a suspension or fine.
The NHL's commissioner responded by firmly defending the league Thursday. Gary Bettman called the injury to Pacioretty horrific, but said it's part of the game. He also suggested the league can find new sponsors if an old one pulls out.
Law enforcement got involved Thursday following a request by Quebec's director of criminal and penal prosecutions, Louis Dionne.
A spokeswoman for Dionne said that, after seeing television footage of the incident, he issued a recommendation to the provincial Public Security department that an investigation be opened.
The department then forwarded the file to police.
"The police investigation will be held. Like all police investigations, evidence will be gathered and an investigation report will be submitted (to the DCPP)," said spokeswoman Martine Berube.
"(The DCPP) will then evaluate to see whether there's grounds for prosecution."
Asked what kind of punishment could be assessed in a case like Chara's, she replied: "It's too early to say. That would depend on what charges are laid. That's a little difficult to predict at this point."
The move came amid a burst of outrage after the National Hockey League declined to suspend Chara.
Earlier Wednesday, Dionne's own office played down talk of a criminal investigation but hardened its tone hours later when the league announced no sanctions would be taken.
Later in the day, a major league sponsor and even the federal government were demanding action.
Air Canada waded into the debate, sending a letter late Wednesday to the NHL.
In the letter, the airline threatened to withdraw its sponsorship unless the NHL moves to impose sanctions to reduce potential serious injuries.
The debate over headshots and concussions has been constant this season, with superstar Sidney Crosby topping the injury list.
Pacioretty, a left-winger from New Canaan, Conn., who had established himself this season as a regular top-line player, suffered a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture to the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck.
With both racing for the puck near the player benches, the six-foot-nine Chara checked Pacioretty into the boards and the young Hab slammed into a stanchion supporting the glass.
The hit drew criticism from Gary Lunn, the minister of state for sports, and others outside the league. Lunn called it unacceptable.
But the league deemed it "a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface."
Chara, who said he had no intent to hurt Pacioretty, was given a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct on the play.
The big Bruin is not known to be a dirty player and has never been suspended in his 13-year career.
Pacioretty told TSN he was "upset and disgusted" that the league had not suspended Chara.
"I'm not mad for myself, I'm mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it's okay, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt."
Legal and law-enforcement experts expressed doubt the police investigation would result in criminal charges.
"This would be the type of case that would be very tough to prosecute," said John Galianos, a former major crimes investigator with Quebec's provincial police.
He added that the difficulty facing prosecutors would be establishing Chara's intent to injure.
"I don't think a Crown attorney would prosecute based on the video," Galianos said.
The prosecution would also have to argue that the violence of the hit went above and beyond the normal level of violence in professional hockey, said a Montreal criminal lawyer.
"When you get involved in a sport, there is a concept of acceptance of risk," said Steven Slimovitch.
"The question is did Pacioretty agree to be hit in that kind of fashion by Zdeno Chara? Was the hit so outside the norm of what is found in the sport of hockey . . . that it's not hockey anymore.
Slimovitch pointed out that while criminal charges have been brought against NHL players in the past for on-ice violence, they have generally involved stick-swinging incidents.
There is little precedent for a bodycheck leading to legal action.
Following the Bruins' pre-game skate in Boston on Thursday, Chara reiterated his claim that he didn't set out to hurt Pacioretty.
"You feel bad when a fellow player gets severely hurt," he said. "I know, deep down, I did not do it intentionally."