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The Globe and Mail

Bettman unfazed by Air Canada sponsorship threat

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks before the NHL All Star Skills Hockey competition on Saturday, Jan., 29, 2011, in Raleigh, N.C. The NHL board of governors holds its All-Star game meeting, with franchise sales and hits to the head likely to be on the agenda. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Karl B. DeBlaker/2011 Associated Press

Unfazed by Air Canada's threat to take its millions in NHL sponsorship elsewhere, commissioner Gary Bettman warned teams might choose to fly with another airline.

The sparring grew nastier after Air Canada's letter was leaked and Mr. Bettman, in Washington - ostensibly to bask in the glow of a high-profile visit to President Barack Obama to honour last year's Stanley Cup Champions - found himself mired in negative publicity over the league's handling of the horrific check that left Montreal forward Max Pacioretty with a broken neck vertebrae.

Mr. Bettman wasn't backing down.

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"Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative," the commissioner said, when asked if he took the threat to pull sponsorship money seriously.

Instead, he fired off a counter-threat. "It is the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don't think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service," he said.

All six Canadian teams have charter arrangements with Air Canada. So do several U.S.-based teams.

The Air Canada letter demanded the NHL to do more to prevent life-threatening injuries and combat the spate of concussions that have felled players this season - include the game's marquee player, Sidney Crosby. "We are contacting you [Wednesday]to voice our concern over [Tuesday night's] incident involving Max Pacioretty and Zdeno Chara at the Bell Centre in Montreal," wrote Denis Vandal, Air Canada's director of marketing and communications. "This is following several other incidents involving career-threatening and life-threatening head shots in the NHL recently."

Mr. Bettman staunchly backed the league decision to impose no additional punishment on Boston's captain who was assessed a five-minute penalty for interference and a game misconduct while Pacioretty lay motionless, face down on the ice for more than five minutes before being immobilized on a spinal board and taken by ambulance to hospital.

"It was a horrific injury, we're sorry it happened in our fast-paced, physical game," Mr. Bettman said after a hearing on Capitol Hill. But he said the decision not to further sanction Chara for the hit during the Canadiens-Bruins game in Montreal on Tuesday was widely praised by the league teams.

"The people in the game that I have heard from, almost to a person, and I will exclude the two clubs involved, believe it was handled appropriately," Mr. Bettman said. ``Our hockey operations people are extraordinarily comfortable with the decision that they made."

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Air Canada's letter said the NHL was taking the risk of serious injury too lightly.

"From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality. Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey."


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