Ripple Effects of Chara’s hit on Pacioretty in the NHL

March 16, 2011

criminal law, Uncategorized

The ripples from Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty last week have begun lapping on the shores of sponsors and big business (click here for a video of the hit).

Chara checked Pacioretty driving his head into a steel (and padded) stanchion resulting in Pacioretty sustaining a non-displaced C4 fracture and a severe concussion. Chara was given a five minute major penalty and game misconduct for interference. The National Hockey League imposed no supplemental discipline finding that Chara did not deliberately target Pacioretty’s head. It was a tragic ‘hockey play’ that resulted in a player breaking his neck. In other words, it was an accident. Chara apologized and said he didn’t hurt Pacioretty intentionally.

The incident has sparked considerable debate. Columnists have called Chara’s conduct as acting with reckless disregard (don’t you love it when reporters write in legalese?) and that he knew exactly what he was doing driving Pacioretty’s head into the post.

Technically, Chara did not break Rule 48 which prohibits lateral or blindside hits to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact. The problem is that the head must be targeted; the contact must be intentional. In a fast and furious sport like hockey, it is very difficult to prove in the balance of probabilities that there was intent.

If the league is serious about hits to the head and brain injuries they will have to adopt a strict liability approach similar to their existing rules about high-sticking (Rule 60) or delay of game when a player inadvertently shoots the puck over the boards while in their own end (Rule 63).

In spite of Sydney Crosby – the world’s best player – getting concussed by a hit more than two months ago which somehow went unpenalized when he was away from the puck and looking in the other direction from his assailant (Crosby hasn’t played a game since) and now Chara breaking Pacioretty’s neck, the NHL seems in no hurry to fix the problem.

Corporate Canada appears not to agree.

Air Canada sent NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman a letter which expressed concern over the incident and noted that, ‘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 suspensions to the players in question to curtail these threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey.’

This reminds me of a couple of the basic rules of business:

1st Rule of Business – money talks

2nd Rule of Business – league commissioners and team owners listen to money talking

So, in their way of thinking, if a bunch of whiners are upset with fighting and hitting in hockey but fans continue to go to games, the league will do nothing but hear the sound of turnstiles clicking into arenas and count their money.

But this is different. The carrier is one of Canada’s biggest brands and supporters of NHL hockey in the country. The criticism represents an assault on the league’s credibility and approach to violence.

Bettman is putting a brave face on the situation and even threatening retaliation saying that ‘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.’

I don’t think he understands the gravity of the situation.

If the National Hockey League wishes to be taken seriously as a professional league then it will have to listen to the concerns of Corporate Canada. Bettman ignores the criticism at the league’s peril.

All of this represents a new front to the fight on hockey violence and even cracks to the foundation of sponsorship support to the league.  Hold on to your hats – this promises to get very interesting!

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