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Hockey Notes

Brutality is on display — but not from Chara

By Kevin Paul Dupont
March 13, 2011

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Of all the remarkable circumstances concerning Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal forward Max Pacioretty, the least remarkable was the hit itself. In today’s NHL, that hit blends in with all the fruits and vegetables in your local grocery store’s produce section. Just another green pepper, Chilean tomato, ripened Dole banana.

Vicious? Not in the least. Beyond the pale? See paragraph No. 1. Malicious? Only if you are applying the rules of ringette.

Perhaps the most remarkable and risible aspect of the whole thing was the reaction of Montreal fans, sycophants, and some media members who attributed such otherworldly powers to Chara that he was able to pick the exact time and place to inflict playercide on Pacioretty and then delivered his hit with GPS-like accuracy.

If Chara is that good, folks, then the Boston power play should be the greatest man-advantage in the history of the sport. Big Z the Cyborg would nail 50, 60, 80 percent or more of those teed-up slappers to the top shelf, laser beams emanating from his pupils and locking on the exact coordinates in the net for the puck to land.

Such efficiency would have the Bruins counting Cups with the frequency of those 1970s Canadiens teams, in an era when we still paid homage to the Flying Frenchmen and the class and prestige inherent in that feared and respected “CH’’ crest.

Too many Habs fans, including even team owner Geoff Molson, forgot some of their own recent history. Why, it was only Dec. 26 that Pacioretty himself was tossed from a game on Long Island when he smacked Islanders defenseman Mark Eaton into the rear boards with a running hit across the back.

It was precisely the kind of hit that Chara’s was not, and the type of hit that the league was far too slow in trying to legislate out of the game.

The Habs and their fans also must have erased from the memory bank the hit Guillaume Latendresse delivered to Rob DiMaio in a 2006-07 preseason game, leaving DiMaio addle-brained and never to play again. Where was all the outrage then about playing the game the right way?

And do we even have to bring up the 151 rather unique games (1985-88) when John Kordic mucked around in that CH sweater?

The hits delivered by Pacioretty and Latendresse were bad hits, their intent quite clear, with varying degrees of recklessness and devastation. The one Chara delivered came with a near-catastrophic ending; it could have killed Pacioretty.

But it did not have the towering defenseman lining up his prey (see: Latendresse/DiMaio). It was not from behind (see: Pacioretty/Eaton), but rather from the side, after the two skated for a very brief distance virtually hip-to-hip. Chara’s elbow comes up at the end, part of finishing the check, but that’s not what put Pacioretty to sleep or cracked his neck.

The padded turnbuckle at the end of the Boston bench was the main culprit, and it may not even have been that immovable object that inflicted most of the damage. The head-first smack sent Pacioretty crumpling for a face-first pounding into the Bell Centre ice.

Heavy check. Horrible result. That’s it. For those claiming to know Chara’s intentions, please, e-mail me next week’s winning lottery numbers, OK?

We will say it again, folks, in full voice: Hockey is the most dangerous sport in the world. Unlike in any others, virtually every facet of the game can inflict serious if not devastating injury — the puck, the stick, the skate blade, the boards, the ice, the goal posts, the shoulder pads, the players . . . the list is virtually endless.

Given the risk for hurt, I am increasingly surprised that US high schools make it available to their student-athletes, even more surprised that parents allow their children to enter such risk.

Not even the brutal NFL comes close, in part because it is such a static game. Imagine the decrease in injuries — to say nothing of the drop in entertainment value — if, after every offensive foray, the hockey action came to a halt, everyone huddled up, and the players positioned themselves around the faceoff dot to begin the next play, one that would last all of 5-8 seconds.

Let’s also state the obvious here, again, which is that none of us likes to see players hurt — especially someone who has chronicled this game now since the late ’70s.

I was in the press box at Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver the night of Oct. 23, 1982, when Canucks winger Marc Crawford targeted second-year Bruins forward Normand Leveille and hammered him into the sideboards. Crawford’s hit smacked the side of Leveille’s head heavily into the top of the boards, so much so that it brought me straight up out of my seat — the first and last time that has ever happened.

Leveille’s career was over upon impact. The hit opened up a congenital defect, an arteriovenous malformation in Leveille’s head, the bleeding in his skull leading him directly to life-saving brain surgery and ultimately leaving him with a degree of permanent paralysis in his limbs and impaired speech.

I sat next to Leveille’s parents, who flew in the next day from Montreal, at the hospital for their first meeting with the surgeon to learn what had just happened to their 19-year-old son, and felt their shock, devastation, inexplicable grief. I stood silently next to Jean Ratelle at Leveille’s bedside at the hospital, the two of us pondering in disbelief and sadness how Leveille’s sport, his joy, his livelihood were plucked from him in an instant.

Pacioretty checked out of a Montreal hospital Thursday, less than 24 hours after his injury, and the hockey world should be grateful and happy for that. He will need time to heal, but by all accounts the 22-year-old kid from Connecticut should be OK, lead a normal life, and, if he wants, try to continue his hockey career.

Hockey is truly a brutal business, always has been, but never more so than today. Chara’s hit, though garden-variety, underscored that point once again. Night after night we see scores of hits, far meaner and more dangerous than Chara’s, that tell us the game has changed dramatically over the last quarter-century.

Yes, it has always been a game of big hits and crude and nasty characters, including the face-washers, brawlers, the sucker-punchers and the stick swingers. But the last quarter-century has seen a frightening cultural shift among the players, one that, by my eye, has transformed a game of skate, pass, and shoot to one of skate, seek, and destroy.

And if there is physical destruction left behind, hey, so what, that’s hockey.

No, it’s not. At least it shouldn’t be, if the idea is to keep the sport relevant, vital, sustainable.

In the “old’’ game, the prevailing culture among the players was to take an opponent off the puck, separate him from it, mainly to take possession and make a play. Longtime Bruins fans remember when Don Marcotte was assigned to shadow Montreal’s Guy Lafleur. Or when Steve Kasper waited outside Wayne Gretzky’s house on game night in Edmonton, followed him to the rink, all around the ice, then all the way home. A delightful example of strategy, competition, and execution.

A shadow in today’s game? Are you kidding? How quaint, even naive. Everyone on the ice now gets the same treatment, one that is based in the belief that it’s far more effective and intelligent to skate fast and blast people at every opportunity. Skate, hammer, repeat. Kill the guy and hope maybe your teammate is nearby to pick up the loose puck. If someone on the other team gets it, then skate, hammer, repeat.

Oh, is that Marc Savard stretched out, unable to move, being strapped to a board in case his neck is broken? Boy, tough one. Sidney Crosby is concussed and can’t suit up? Pity. Scoring is way down from the ’80s and ’90s because everyone is buzzing around, thinking kill first, play-make second? Now there’s a game for everyone to enjoy.

Hockey is in a very bad place right now, and not because of what Chara did to Pacioretty. Finding a better design or padding for the turnbuckle is a relatively easy fix, and an important one. Reducing the size of shoulder and elbow pads, also something that must be done, is another simple and valuable change. All those little nips and tucks will help bring down the speed, the seeking-and-destroying.

But most of all, someone (hello, players!) has to figure out how to reshape the culture of brutality and lack of respect. Sadly, the players can’t expect the owners or the paying customers to demand they stop cannibalizing one another on the ice. That kind of entertainment has landed rear ends in seats since ancient Rome.

Check out the highlight reels played on every arena’s video screens. There is some scoring and playmaking in there, somewhere, but they are mostly about big hits and fights. Shaping the culture, one frame, one brutalizing hit at a time.

The change must come from within, led by smart players and intelligent, committed, and honest union leadership. Their focus now, first and foremost, shouldn’t be on protecting the language and dollars of the next CBA. Like all sports, it’s the game of those who play it. It’s time they push ego and wallets aside and focus on workplace safety, rules, officiating and above all, how they think about and play the game. If they can’t see that, they can’t see anything.

JUMBLED JOE
Thornton logic is all mixed up Old pal Dale Arnold at WEEI often liked to say, “Everything’s good on Planet Joe, isn’t it?’’ when referring to ex-Boston captain Joe Thornton, who now makes his living out West, which is obviously way, way out there.

To wit, Jumbo Joe ruminating on the Chara-on-Pacioretty hit and the lack of added punishment for Chara:

“It’s just something with Boston,’’ Jumbo Joe told the Globe and Mail, the Canadian-based newspaper. “It just seems like they have a horseshoe. We’ve seen the [Milan] Lucic cross-check to the head [of Maxim Lapierre] earlier, and there’s no disciplinary thing.’’

One alleged cross-check to Lapierre, by the way, earned Lucic a one-game suspension in the 2009 playoffs. So . . . huh?

“It’s just something about Boston, and the disciplinary [process] is on their side. I’m not sure why that is. I’m not assuming that Colin [Campbell’s] kid is on the team, and that’s why, but it’s really bizarre.’’

Bizarre? Holy St. Thomas, Ontario. Look, Thornton is a happy, extremely likable guy, but as it was during so much of his time here, we are left to wonder what he is thinking.

Did Thornton miss the Matt Cooke smackdown on Marc Savard that didn’t earn Cooke a wrist slap? How about the Randy Jones hammering on Patrice Bergeron that ended Bergeron’s 2007-08 season and could have ended his career, if not life? Jones was hit with a two-game suspension and, of course, thought it was excessive.

If all of that is favoritism, then one wonders what other treats are in store for the Bruins from NHL headquarters. Worth noting, by the way, that Campbell recuses himself from disciplinary decisions about the Bruins because his son, Greg Campbell, is on the team. But the junior Campbell joined Boston only this season, so that wouldn’t be a question for Thornton to ponder in relation to Messrs. Lucic, Bergeron, or Savard.

We never know what the big guy is thinking, same as April 18, 2004, when as captain of the Bruins he opted not to say a single word to the media about the next day’s Game 7 against the Canadiens.

He is just sort of . . . out there.

ETC.
GMs to hold a skull session League general managers are in Florida early this week, at the hockey-starved Boca Beach Club (fore!), for their annual end-of-season jawboning session. Further discussion of Rule No. 48 (hits to the head) was already on the agenda, but L’affaire Chara no doubt will make it more of a hot-button issue. Don’t look for much more than lip service, although Air Canada’s threat on Wednesday to pull its commercial support from the league may have owners looking for their GMs to at least express public concern. Canada’s Via Rail joined the pigpile on Friday. Perhaps the Boston University study about Bob Probert’s damaged brain will at least get the GMs’ attention.

No home cooking Heading into weekend play, only two of the 16 clubs holding playoff spots had losing records on home ice. The Sabres, with the No . 7 seed in the East, stood 14-15-3 at HSBC Arena, while the No. 8 Rangers were 15-16-3 at MSG. The other six playoff squads in the East were an average 20-10-5 on home ice.

An obscure penalty If it’s hard for you to remember five-minute interference majors being called, don’t be surprised. The one called on Chara Tuesday was the first one this season (in NHL game No. 996). It was only written into the rule book for the start of the 2007-08 season and only eight others were whistled prior to this season.

Loose pucks After Friday night’s win over Carolina, the Capitals had won seven in a row and a re-engaged Alex Ovechkin was 4-7—11 in those games. Funny how that works . . . Another week gone by and still no closed deal for Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer (also Amherst’s ex-captain) to own the Coyotes. Here’s hoping he ends up with the franchise in Quebec City, because hearing his name announced in French would be entertainment in itself . . . Had Dave Lewis been in charge of the Boston bench, the bet here is that Pacioretty would not have hit that turnbuckle. The Lewis-led Bruins always had too many men on the ice, and Chara never would have been able to fight through the clutter.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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