It's starting to look as if Zdeno Chara's hit on Tuesday night didn't just injure Max Pacioretty, it may have shaken up the sports sponsorship industry.
On Friday, Via Rail shot off a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman complaining that the league's "quick and ineffective ruling on the Pacioretty/Chara incident of last Tuesday is totally unacceptable, as it does nothing to try to reverse the alarming trend of vicious hits that have sidelined some of the game's greatest talents." The letter, which followed a similar missive by Air Canada, insisted the league "consider our concerns" when its general managers meet next week in Florida.
The move is unprecedented in the history of modern sports, but a marketing expert said it may mark a tipping point of activism among major-league sponsors.
A Via Rail executive said the company was especially outraged by Bettman's dismissal of Air Canada's criticism on Thursday, in which Bettman made a veiled threat to take the league's business elsewhere after the airline called on the NHL to take immediate action to prevent further injuries.
"That is really what made me feel that we have a responsibility as a stakeholder to take a position and share our concerns and hope we'll be heard," said Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, Via's general counsel and secretary, who penned the letter.
He added, however, that Via, a long-time sponsor of the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, would not consider pulling its support, "because we believe our sponsorship is what gives us a right to be critical and demand changes and more discipline in the way discipline is administered."
Via's letter came as other members of corporate Canada quietly acknowledged the issue is heating up in their executive suites. A senior marketing official who does business with the NHL said the company was watching the situation closely and, if the league does not take action at next week's meeting to address concerns, the company expects to make its disapproval known at that point. CBC-TV acknowledged that one of its large hockey advertisers had expressed concern.
Still, most of those discussions are taking place behind closed doors, in part because there is no road map for public criticism. "We're on new ground here," said Jim Kahler, executive director of the Center for Sports Administration at the University of Ohio. "In the past, you haven't seen sponsors taking on [any]league."
Typically, sponsors who become disenchanted with sports properties or celebrity spokespeople simply stop leveraging those rights through additional marketing expenditures, or let the rights lapse. The move by Air Canada and now Via Rail seems to illustrate the unique role of the NHL in the country.
Still, the league might not want to overplay its hand. "Corporations are sensitive to who they're going to lend their name and money and brand to associate with," said Kahler, who suggested the NHL-sponsor flap was likely being watched closely by the other North American professional sports leagues.
"So, in today's world, they're being a little bit more open, by getting involved in something like this. Maybe it's the next step of, 'Hey, I'm going to be your partner and if I think you're out of line, I have some rights here and I'm going to exercise them.'