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A widening gulf is appearing both within the National Hockey League and among the organization, sponsors and the game's grassroots as the din over violent play grows ever louder.

On an extraordinary day when Montreal police confirmed they have opened a criminal investigation into Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara's controversial hit on Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty, one of the league's main Canadian corporate backers - Air Canada - threatened to withdraw its support, and Habs owner Geoffrey Molson took the rare step of publicly calling out the NHL for its decision not to suspend the hulking Bruins captain.

"The news of the NHL decision [Wednesday]was a hard blow for both the players and fans of the Montreal Canadiens. It was one which shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard," Mr. Molson wrote in an open letter to fans. He said he hopes to rally the NHL's other owners to "address urgently this safety issue."

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And late Thursday the CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins, another team that recently broke ranks with the league over a concussion suffered by superstar Sidney Crosby, became the first to heed Mr. Molson's call.

"We've been on both sides of devastating and controversial hits to the head, and we believe that they should be eliminated from the game, period," Penguins CEO David Morehouse told The Globe and Mail. He also made a bold suggestion that no other senior executive in the league has been willing to voice publicly: Perhaps teams should face punishment for their players' actions on the ice.

"If we're going to have supplementary discipline it can't just be a punitive tool, it has to be a legislative tool. And I think we really have to take a hard look at it and try to make sure that teams are held accountable for the behaviour of their players, and that's us included," Mr. Morehouse said.

Mr. Molson's letter followed on the heels of a leaked missive in which regional sponsor Air Canada warned it may pull out of its agreements with the six Canadian NHL teams. Two other sponsors, Tim Hortons Inc., and telecom giant BCE Inc., which holds a minority share in the Canadiens, joined calls to quickly take action on head injuries and bolster player safety.

The Air Canada letter demanded that the league act swiftly to "protect both the players and the integrity of the game" or it would end its commercial relationship with the NHL. League commissioner Gary Bettman dismissed the threat, saying "that's their prerogative" and that teams could easily make arrangements to fly with other carriers.

The Pacioretty affair has also prompted pointed questions in the political realm.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in at a health-care announcement in Toronto, expressing his sympathy to Mr. Pacioretty, who was discharged from hospital Thursday, less than 48 hours after suffering a severe concussion and a cervical fracture when Mr. Chara rode him into a stanchion between the players' benches. Mr. Harper expressed his concern over what he termed a mounting problem.

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"I do think that is something that [the league is]going to have to address. I'm not sure this is a role for politicians but it certainly is something that is of concern to all of us," he said. "Where we're concerned is we see a growing number of serious head and other injuries in kids' sports, and that is something that we're particularly seized with taking action on and working with our provincial partners on."

Fans and hockey parents also are clamouring for action. Hockey Quebec, the umbrella organization for minor hockey in the province, issued a starkly worded statement Thursday, saying it is "disappointed" in the NHL and supporting the criminal probe into the matter.

"The influence that professional hockey has on other levels of the game is very real. This type of behaviour … must not be allowed to have an influence on young players in this province," the statement said.

The Pacioretty incident was the focus of many conversations in Montreal on Thursday.

A talk radio host launched an online petition, promising to deliver it to Mr. Bettman's New York office next week. Benoît Dutrizac, the afternoon host on Montreal's 98.5, said the incident made him queasy. He accused the league, the Canadiens, the coaches, the players and their association and many sports reporters and commentators of being complicit in allowing hockey to turn into a sport of "extreme violence."

"Sidney Crosby, the best player in the league, has been convalescing for two months, and Max Pacioretty could have been put in a wheelchair," Mr. Dutrisac said. "Our young people are watching this. Enough is enough."

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Fans are also expressing their displeasure - a small group is trying to organize a protest before the next Canadiens home game on Tuesday. Victor Henriquez, one of the organizers, called the Pacioretty hit "the last straw in a series of incidents." He said fans, who dutifully fill the Bell Centre every Canadiens' home game and tune in to television by the hundreds of thousands, have to take action if the game is going to change.

"They are going to destroy our national sport. One day a player will be killed, and it's going to kill the game," Mr. Henriquez said.

The incident was also serious enough to catch the attention of the provincial director of prosecutions, who asked the Montreal police service to investigate.

But several legal experts agreed that police and prosecutors could have a hard time establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Chara intended to seriously hurt Mr. Pacioretty. Rough-and-tumble sports such as hockey rely on a legal principle that players consent to a certain level of physical assault when they play, but the violence must be within the normal bounds of the game. Even if the violence is deemed to go beyond those bounds, a judge has to establish intent to injure.

But Robert La Haye, a pre-eminent Quebec lawyer on criminal matters, says some of his colleagues may be too quick to judge. While the NHL official in charge of discipline in this case didn't even hear Mr. Pacioretty, he would be a key witness in a criminal trial. Mr. Pacioretty, who was well enough on Thursday to thank his fans for their support on Twitter, has already accused Mr. Chara of deliberately guiding his head into the steel support, a charge the latter has denied.

"There is no question this is far from a perfect case, this is not as simple as if a player uses his stick like a baseball bat to strike another," Mr. La Haye said. "But in the hockey world, they start with presumption that because you're the victim you have no credibility. A judge brings in all context and circumstances."

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Meanwhile, the violence went on. On Thursday night, Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek was thrown out of a game for shoving Flyers winger Dan Carcillo from behind, sending him tumbling head-first into the boards. Down on the ice for a minute or two afterwards, Mr. Carcillo returned later in the first period; Mr. Komisarek may still receive a call from the NHL's head office for the offence.

With reports from James Bradshaw, Brent Jang and James Mirtle in Toronto, and Paul Koring in Washington

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