It was like nothing they'd ever heard, so they knew it was bad.
When Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty's head, propelled by Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, thudded sickeningly into a stanchion with 15 seconds to play in the second period of Tuesday's 4-1 Montreal win, even teammates who didn't see it immediately understood the implication.
"The sound it made," shuddered centre Scott Gomez, who was on the ice at the time, "that's the first thing Gio [captain Brian Gionta]and I said to each other: 'did you hear that?' It just wasn't right."
Pacioretty suffered a cervical fracture and a severe concussion and the NHL controversially opted not to suspend Chara.
The affair has polarized opinion and also caught the attention of the federal government.
Sports Minister Gary Lunn said, "it scared me, seeing [Pacioretty]out cold on the ice," adding Prime Minister Stephen Harper is concerned about the issue of concussions and violent play.
Lunn said the NHL needs to crack down on deliberate blows to the head, adding that they should result in "multi, multi game suspensions." At the same time, Lunn said his government isn't in the business of regulating the NHL, and ruled out holding an inquiry.
Tuesday's is the latest in a recent spate of high-profile incidents - including the concussion suffered by Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby - that have unfolded against a sinister backdrop.
Last week, researchers in Boston revealed former NHL enforcer Bob Probert, who died suddenly last year at 45, was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative condition that resembles Alzheimer's disease.
NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr said the players union is examining all aspects of the overall issue of hits to the head and concussions. "We're not going to be bashful about making ... suggestions," Fehr said. "I assume the league won't be either and we can have those discussions."
Pacioretty has more immediate concerns as he begins his recovery in the Montreal General Hospital, where he will remain for observation over the coming days, although he seemed more focused on the lack of punishment handed down to Chara.
"I am upset and disgusted that the league didn't think enough of [the hit]to suspend him," he told TSN on Wednesday. "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."
By happenstance, Pacioretty's parents were in the seats on Tuesday, having made the trip from New Canaan, Conn., to see their 22-year-old son play. They were quickly whisked from the rink by security staff.
Despite injuries and drama, the show must go on in big-time hockey, and so the Canadiens took to the ice for practice Wednesday.
The Habs' dressing room has been a joyous, rowdy place in recent weeks and especially during the team's current five-game win streak, but that gave way to a sombre, contemplative atmosphere.
Players didn't bother to hide their distress at Pacioretty's injuries.
"I saw [the replay]once, but I couldn't see it again," said rookie defenceman P.K. Subban.
Coach Jacques Martin repeated his calls for the league to act forcefully, but by late afternoon the NHL said it wouldn't fine or suspend the 6-foot-9, 260-pound rearguard.
"I could not find any evidence to suggest that ... Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous," stand-in disciplinarian Mike Murphy said in a statement issued by the league. "I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly - with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards. ... a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface."
"I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous."
Replays of the hit, which resulted in a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct, seem to contradict the league's interpretation - Chara's left hand and forearm appear to carry Pacioretty's head into the section of glass between the benches - and that will only stoke Montreal fans already incandescent over the affair.
So visceral was the reaction that Montreal's police service felt compelled to issue an appeal to as the public to stop calling 911 to lodge complaints against Chara lest it clog up the lines.
Chara said he hopes to speak to Pacioretty and told the Bruins website that "I obviously feel bad about what happened."
"I'm trying to make a strong hockey play and play hard. Unfortunately the player got hurt and I had to leave the game. It is in my mind," he said.
As fans and pundits dissected the hit to try to divine Chara's intentions - he and Pacioretty have had a few scrapes since the Habs forward gave him an innocuous shove following a goal in December - players were trying to make sense of it all.
It's clear there are few easy answers.
"Ever since you're a kid you're taught 'if you're going to try and hit somebody, try and hurt him.' You're taught that if you're going to take a penalty, break a bone doing it," said winger Michael Cammalleri. "So you're taught that growing up, that kill-or-be-killed mentality, if you're going to change that, it's not an easy thing to do."
It's not known when or even if Pacioretty will be back on the ice - other players, such as former Toronto Maple Leaf Gary Roberts, have had full recoveries from similar injuries - but the interruption of his breakthrough season (he has 14 goals and 10 assists in 37 games) is a sobering blow.
Gionta said he hopes it will remind players to remember the importance of respecting their opponents.
"At the end of the day we go home, we have families, we have kids, you have a life beyond hockey," Gionta said.
With reports from Jane Taber in Ottawa and David Shoalts in TorontoReport Typo/Error