Headshots: It's Not Just About Pacioretty and Chara

About a year ago, I wrote a blog called Ten Reasons Why The NHL Will Always be #4. As you can imagine, a lot of it had to do with headshots and illegal plays in the league, but also with the business side of the league and the “dinosaur” tactics of the people running it.

I forgot what really caused my outburst. I think it may have have probably been the Patrice Cormier incident. Either way, looking back at the post I can tell I was pretty angry when I wrote it. Clearly, whatever happened that caused it was long forgotten. As will most of the “dirty” hits in the league this year. But one that will probably be remembered by not only Habs fans, but hockey fans in general will be last Tuesday’s hit by Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty, a hit that sent the Montreal Canadiens forward face first into the stanchion along the benches, and then off on a stretcher to a Montreal hospital, where he would be diagnosed with a fractured vertebrae in his neck and (at the time) a severe concussion. If not for the hit itself, then for the massive uproar that would follow.

In no less than a week following the incident, we've seen 911 phone lines jammed with angry hockey fans asking for Zdeno Chara to be charged with assault, and a subsequent investigation opened against the Bruins defenseman and captain. We've seen protests in front of the Bell Centre, threatening letters from sponsors, and just about any relevant party asked for his opinion by the media.

Today, after all the reactions and all the parties have more or less begun to calm down, it would be revealed that Pacioretty is a lot further along in his recovery than some had imagined, and could possibly return to the Habs lineup for the playoffs, resuming full contact practice in about a month when his neck heels up. Apparently, despite the original diagnosis of a "severe" concussion, he claims to be suffering from no concussion symptoms. It wouldn't be the first time this season that Pacioretty would recover amazingly quickly from a seemingly severe injury. In fact, I predicted that we'd see him quicker than likely expected right after the incident on twitter.

In any case, this is good news, right? Well, not according to everyone.

The apparent logical reaction from Bruins fans on twitter is to suggest that Pacioretty faked breaking his neck so the Canadiens could get Chara out of the game and they could win the division. No, seriously. (To share both sides of it, thankfully, at least one Bruins blogger has some common sense on the matter).

But regardless of Pacioretty’s apparent speedy recovery, and the adamantium that flows in his blood, I don’t think that changes anything with the current situation in and around the NHL. Speedy recovery or not, Pacioretty almost lost his life on the ice last Tuesday. And as the title of this blog suggests, it isn’t just about Pacioretty. Since the incident, there have been three suspensions handed out for headshots, with a three gamer being handed out to Pavel Kubina last week, and two-gamers being handed out to Dany Heatley yesterday and, ironically, Bruins forward Brad Marchand today. A few others have gone unnoticed and unpunished in that time, and with a month left in the season, there will surely be a few more that will have fans talking.

Just this week, a player in Manitoba Junior league was suspended FORTY GAMES for a hit from behind, something that NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell may not even be able to fathom.

Gary Bettman, Brian Burke and all the other dinosaurs of the league can try to cover up the issue as much as they want, but it’s clear that there definitely is a big problem with illegal hits in the league, one that is causing a lot of injuries and a lot of concussions. Pacioretty was lucky to escape with no concussion symptoms. But others, including the league’s top star in Sidney Crosby, as well as Bruins forward Marc Savard (forgetting for a second the irony of the fact that he too returned to the Bruins line-up in last year's playoffs after a "severe" concussion), have not been so lucky.

With fans, players, coaches, general manages, owners, sponsors, even politicians and government bodies coming out in protest against headshots, it’s ridiculous that some people are still brushing these types of incidents off.

There have been fan protests in front of the Bell Centre which have been inexplicably ridiculed by the dinosaurs of the league and the mindless fans. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau even discouraged these fans from going to games, which, by the way, is an excellent business practice – and why? Because there are concerned with the health of the players they cheered for? They’re scared that the Pacioretty incident is just another in a growing – and more importantly, escalating – list of incidents that will inevitably lead to an unspeakable act on the ice.

There have been owners in the league itself – people who, you know, Gary Bettman is supposed to work for – who have publicly slammed their league for allowing these things to happen, as well as go unpunished. Mario Lemieux, one of the most respected players in the history of the NHL, has gotten publicly chastised for somehow being a hypocrite for caring about the direction of the league. And when Geoff Molson, owner of the Canadiens, did the same thing in a much more tamed statement last week, Don Cherry went on an absolute tirade – because the guy wants to protect his damn players?

Players like Joe Thornton, and one of the Sedins – I forgot which one, but does it really matter? – have also agreed that there is a problem in the NHL that its officials mind-bogglingly refuse to deal with. But of course, they’re in the minority. Just like everyone else who has used this latest incident as a breaking point for the situation in the league.

Sponsors have also slammed the NHL for their unwillingness to deal with the issue, and the first to do so, Air Canada, opened the door for Tim Hortons, Via Rail, Kraft and many others to do the same. They didn’t mince their words, going as far as to threaten to pull their dollars out of the league, but they clearly weren’t alone. The NHL went in a defensive shell after that one, threatening them right back.

Politicians and government bodies at every level of government in Canada have also come out against violence in the NHL. Canada’s sports minister and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed concern following the incident. Montreal’s government will pass a motion to ask the NHL to commit to further action to protect players in its league. Quebec’s crown prosecutor went as far as to order an investigation into the hit. Nothing will likely come of Montreal police’s investigation, but I think the intent speaks loud and clear.

Even the league itself thinks so. Despite publicly stating their “overwhelming” and “extraordinary” comfort with the current situation of headshots in the NHL – the language used by people who know they’re in the wrong – they themselves have come out with five point plans and a lot of other novelties to “combat” the issues they said weren’t issues just last week.

So go figure.

But every time any of these people opens their mouth or tweets a new tweet or writes a new blog on the subject, the accusations pour down on them. We’re all homers. We wouldn’t be acting this way if the incident was in Atlanta or Florida. If Hal Gill did this to David Krejci there wouldn’t be any protest.

Well, enough is enough. Don’t these people realize that it’s on about the Pacioretty incident specifically, or even the fact that it was a Hab? Yes, it makes the incident more visible when the player getting hit half to death is one in a high profile market with a passionate set of fans. Yes, Habs fans as a whole likely wouldn’t react as highly as they did if this happened in another market.

But for people who like to rain down with the “what ifs”, they certainly like to ignore one giant what if: What if Max Pacioretty had died on the ice last Tuesday?

And that’s what’s bothersome here. A player, with a history of going after Pacioretty, viciously hit him into a stanchion – whether it was an accident or not – and nearly paralyzed him. A player on a team that has had it out for the Canadiens since the start of the season, and instigated a line brawl only a month prior to the incident. All of these issues have gone unpunished, and the teams meet again in two weeks.

If that doesn’t scream “problem” with the way things are handled at the NHL’s head offices, I don’t know what does. Accident or not, this was the product of an escalating feud which the NHL chose not to deal with. People talk about “preventing” instead of “reacting”. Well, reaction in this case would have been and could still be a form of prevention. If the NHL had sent their message a month ago after the Beatdown in Beantown, don’t you think that someone like Chara may have been a little more careful in a situation like that? And if he hadn’t, don’t you think that players in general would be more careful in such situations if the league brought down the hammer on Chara after the incident?

If people still want to act as if they’re in denial, and claim that the number of incidents involving shots to head since last Tuesday – which I can’t count on one hand – aren’t at least in part related to the inaction following the Chara hit, then there really isn’t much else to say.

But like I said, it's more than just Chara on Pacioretty. It's everywhere around the year. This latest major incident would simply act as the straw that broke the camel's back in the headshot discussion, because unlike prior incidents, it was high profile, and it was more than just a "hockey play" as so many of the dinosaurs like to put it. The madness needs to stop.

I said it a year ago when I named headshots the number one issue in the NHL that was holding them behind the NFL, baseball, and the NBA – and I’d even go as far as to add racing, and even soccer in ahead of them at this point. Hell, even boxing and the UFC – and I’ll say it again. The dinosaurs of the NHL are holding the sport back from great things. We spend days over-analyzing hits after they happen, looking for any semblance of an excuse to justify them. We suspend players for negligible amounts of games to give the illusion that we’re doing something about these issues. We say players don’t have a “history” or a track record and shrug off the possibility that they may be capable of doing something wrong regardless of whether they’ve done so before.

Word for word, this is how I closed out that top ten list last year:

In the NFL, you're not even allowed to touch someone's helmet with your finger. In the NHL, there's somehow an argument for every hit. Did the player leave his feet? Did his elbows come up? Was the hit low? High? It's not right. The NFL isn't suffering from these changes. In fact, they're thriving. But, through some sort of warped logic, changing things in the NHL would hurt the sport?

Tell me if even a word of this has changed, in 14 months, and then ask yourselves once again whether Habs fans have overreacted over the last 9 days, or whether it was those who came out against them – simply for caring about a player – who are missing the point.

Next week, I’ll be listing off the ten items on that list point by point, to see if 14 months later, the NHL has done anything to improve their position. So post your thoughts in the comments below and stay tuned!


- ALSO READ: Habs vs Lightning Game Day by Jason Pietroniro


George Prax's picture

It's totally hypocritical. One day:

"We are extraordinarily comfortable with our decision" (while a guy lies in a hospital bed no less)

The next day:

"we have come out with a five point plan to stop concussions and dirty hits. But this doesn't mean there's a problem or that the Chara hit was dirty or anything."

It doesn't even make any sense. I hate to sound like this but a part of me wants Crosby to not be able to come back this year, possibly even have troubles next year. Not because I want him to suffer and that's why I feel bad saying that, but because it seems like it would be the only way the league would wake up about these matters.