NHL takes hit to the head

Sport tends to transcend normal boundaries when propelled by one of three things: excellence, national pride or calamity.

Sport tends to transcend normal boundaries when propelled by one of three things: excellence, national pride or calamity.

In those instances, we herald excellence beyond normal proportions, swell up with a false sense of national pride — and despair mightily at our obsession with athletics when things turn bad. The reactions tend to be visceral and brief.

The rest of the time, fans immerse themselves in their sports of interest by degrees, and the remainder of the general population keeps a polite distance.

And then something happens to ignite more widespread and enduring focus on a game — like Zdeno Chara’s recent hit on Max Pacioretty — and all eyes turn to sport.

Chara, the captain of the Boston Bruins, rubbed Montreal Canadiens forward Pacioretty out along the boards during a game in Montreal on March 8. Chara engaged Pacioretty well after the puck had been chipped ahead, and extended his arm into his opponent’s head as they approached the stanchion (Chara is six-foot-nine and 255 pounds and Pacioretty is six-foot-two and 196 pounds). The footage showing Pacioretty hitting the stanchion is brutally disturbing.

Chara was given a major penalty (five minutes) for interference and a game misconduct.

Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra; he was hospitalized for two days.

Chara was not subsequently suspended.

It is unlikely Pacioretty will play again this season, and perhaps may never play again — concussions heal with such uncertainty.

In general, our reactions to sports-related issues tend to be more emotional than is useful, and more definitive than is realistic, particularly in instances like this.

But as the firestorm that has erupted over this incident demonstrates, sometimes the emotion of the moment is too real and too powerful to deny.

The National Hockey League, as the ultimate arbitrator of the game and as the focal point for most hockey fans, repeatedly treats issues of workplace justice and safety inconsistently and even cavalierly. No other industry in North America could so blatantly violate common law and good sense.

Its response to violent hits and violent behaviour often suggests double standards. Certainly, there is wide variance in interpreting the rules and administering punishment. There is even a significant disconnect between the decisions of on-ice officials and Colin Campbell, who is the NHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations and responsible for disciplining players.

In true cyber-satire fashion, fans have launched websites that mock the NHL’s handling of violent incidents (see the NHL Wheel of Justice at www.nhlwheelofjustice.com for a chuckle but little insight). A Quebec radio station encouraged fans last week to call 911 to demand that police launch a criminal investigation into the hit (police are investigating, but charges are unlikely).

More noteworthy is the fact that politicians (including Prime Minister Stephen Harper) and the corporate world, including significant NHL sponsors like Air Canada, have waded into the debate, demanding that the NHL take ownership of its problems. Even team owners like Geoff Molson and Mario Lemieux have spoken out in recent weeks about violence in the game.

The NHL, as a rule, has operated as an old boys club, insular and respondent only by miniscule degrees. Its slow movement on the issue of hits to the head, its lack of insistence that players properly protect themselves (by wearing the newest in protective gear, and even doing helmets up properly or wearing mouthguards) and its inconsistencies in terms of arena preparation and standards demonstrates too little regard for either the value of its assets (players) or its customers.

In the past, it has ignored safety recommendations from players and tends to trivialize the protests of fans.

The NHL’s general managers are meeting this week and will discuss, among other things, hits to the head and the growing number of concussions in the game.

Any decisions they make need to address two critical issues:

l how hockey fans want the game to evolve;

l how, and to what degree, players should be protected.

The measure of how the National Hockey League is managed, and whether it thrives, depends on how those critical areas are dealt with.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.