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NHL takes a hit in Chara case

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 10, 2011 02:32 PM

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Zdeno Chara spends a lot of time skating backwards, and that's the direction the NHL went in failing to fine or suspend him for his check on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.

Take preferred laundry out of the equation for a moment and ask yourself this: If it had been Hal Gill who had put Brad Marchand into the stanchion in the same manner, and it was Marchand who was in the hospital with a severe concussion and broken vertabra in his neck -- not one of the hated Habs --would you feel the same way about the NHL's decision? Answer truthfully.

Anyone who saw the result of Chara's check on Pacioretty knew that while the intent to injure was not part of the play, the responsibility for harm was. We are all responsible for our actions, regardless of intentions, and there are consequences for them. There is no doubt that Chara, who is usually criticized for not throwing around his formidable frame enough, did not intend to nearly decapitate Pacioretty on the partition between the benches at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night. But that's what he did.

What the NHL should have done is suspended Chara for a game or two for a dangerous play simply to send a message to the rest of the league's skaters that in similar circumstances you want to think twice about endangering a player in that area of the ice. Let everyone -- players, coaches, officials, fans -- know that player safety and common sense trump track records of restraint or the lack of malicious intent. But instead the NHL buried its head in the ice and let Chara skate free, proving once again that most of the league's punitive action is simply puny.

Contrast this with the NFL, which has gone out of its way -- some like Steelers linebacker James Harrison have argued too much so -- to make an example of dangerous play and players.

Now, the cries for police involvement in Montreal are an absurd overreaction. But since the NHL can't police its own league, fans want the actual police to do it.

The NHL has not covered itself in glory this season in terms of player safety. Its marquee player Sidney Crosby is idle due to a pair of borderline blindside hits that have left him battling post-concussion syndrome. The Penguins-Islanders melee last month was an embarrassing display. Islanders hit man Trevor Gillies has drawn condemnation from even the staunchest proponents of old-time hockey for his blatant thuggery, and now Air Canada is threatening to pull its sponsorship of the league over the lack of disciplinary action in the Chara-Pacioretty affair.

That had tone-deaf commissioner Gary Bettman verbally sparring with the airline.

The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the league is too laissez-faire in these matters, too content to chalk up serious injuries as the unavoidable collateral damage of a great game.

Pacioretty is simply the latest sacrificial skater, like Marc Savard. The Connecticut-native told TSN that after the hit he briefly considered whether he wanted to even play hockey anymore. Is that what the NHL wants its players feeling about their vocation?

Now, the Chara case is more complicated, especially in these parts. He is not just a stand-up defenseman. He is an upstanding guy. He told reporters today that he was "relieved" he was not suspended, but again expressed his regret that his hit ended up in Pacioretty getting hurt. He even said he understood why Pacioretty would be emotional and say he was "disgusted" by the lack of a punishment.

While defending his actions, Big Z has shown uncommon humanity and grace for a player who knows he's being vilified across much of North America.

Bruins followers can argue Chara not getting suspended is justice because the disciplinary arm of the NHL owed them one after it failed to levy any type of punishment against Pittsburgh Penguins bad boy Matt Cooke for his concussion-causing hit on Savard last March, a hit that Savard may never really recover from. The explanation from NHL vice president Colin Campbell at that time for the lack of a suspension or fine was that there was no penalty called on the play and that Cooke didn't technically violate any rules -- rules that were then promptly changed in reaction to his hit.

Campbell also pointed out the league didn't penalize Philadelphia's Mike Richards for a similar hit on Florida's David Booth, which caused Booth to miss 45 games, a classic NHL disciplinary tack, compounding an error by citing another one.

Bruins fans would have been livid, somewhat rightfully so, if Chara had to do hockey hard time while Cooke's much more calculated and malicious hit resulted in nothing. On some level, the league had to have taken that into account. However, as the old bromide goes: two wrongs don't make a right.

If the league is going to rule simply by the rules and previous non-punishment precedents then there is no need to waste money paying disciplinary deans/vice presidents Campbell, who recused himself from the Chara ruling due to his son, Gregory, being a Bruins player, or Mike Murphy, who ruled in the Chara case.

Read Murphy's statement and it's clear he's trying to apply the headshot rules to the Chara situation, which is to suggest there is a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all solution to every dangerous hit. There is not. Essentially, what the NHL is saying is that Pacioretty is responsible for his own well-being in this case because the rule book can't protect him, outside of the interference call Chara was whistled for.

It's the cold, harsh reality of the ruling.

The cold, harsh, reality for the NHL is that they failed to make the workplace a safer place for their players once again.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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