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Globe Editorial

If Bruins’ Chara is innocent, blame NHL for violent hits

March 11, 2011

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MUCH OF the hockey world spent yesterday debating whether Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara should have been suspended for the hit that broke the vertebrae of, and gave a serious concussion to, Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty. Was it a violation of the rules, or just good, hard hockey? Mike Murphy, the National Hockey League vice president who handles discipline, found no evidence of bad intent. This may be a relief to Chara and some Bruins fans, but it suggests that hockey leaders may be asking the wrong questions. If their sport is so inherently risky that broken necks and severe concussions are just part of the game, then they need to examine the game.

As most of the sports world knows, there is a new and growing body of medical evidence suggesting that there are long-term health risks to concussions, and even to repeated head traumas that are short of concussions. The National Football League, which long adhered to the “good, hard football’’ myth about especially brutal hits, began to change its mind last year. New penalties for excessive hits, and greater medical attentiveness to concussions, may prove to be too little to stem the damage, but the NFL deserves some credit for grappling with the issue.

In hockey, violent injuries usually come from two sources: High-speed encounters in which one player hip-checks another into the boards, as in the Chara-Pacioretty hit, and on-ice fights in which players wallop each other like schoolboys on a blacktop. The two problems can be related: The history of tangles between Chara and Pacioretty has prompted speculation that Chara was trying to make an especially hard hit. After the play, Pacioretty lost consciousness and was wheeled off the ice. He almost certainly won’t play again this season.

Fights in hockey drive up fan interest and are an accepted part of the sport, even if they’re ostensibly against the rules. But the dangers from such on-ice encounters have been amply demonstrated. In one extreme case in 2004, Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to criminal assault for a career-ending hit on former Harvard star Steven Moore. Injuries are inevitable in sports, but every professional league has a responsibility to eliminate preventable injuries. Fights, and even some violent hits, play no role in the actual game. It’s time for the NHL to end its love-hate relationship with on-ice violence, and crack down severely on fights and other hits that officials, in their judgment, believe were malicious.

Should Chara have been suspended? It’s only fair to review each case under the existing rules, and Chara was found innocent. But the rules should be toughened. The medical evidence is clear. Even moderate hits may do lasting damage. With severe hits, the NHL has to make sure that the punishment fits the offense.