Thursday, March 10, 2011

No Blood, No Foul?

Predictably, there's many here in Montreal braying for Chara's blood, even to the point of calling 911 on Wednesday to report an assault. While calling 911 outside of emergency situations is very much discouraged, I think it illustrates the seriousness that some - not all - are ascribing to what we'll refer to as "The Hit."

Max is in stable condition and the hearts of the whole city and much of the hockey-loving world are with him, and we all wish him a complete and speedy recovery. What he definitely isn't is "okay," as too many sportswriters and commentators are saying. He's in a hospital bed with his head immobilized. He came within a couple millimetres of living the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He's dazed with a major concussion. Not insignificantly, he's upset and feels betrayed by the league.

There's a lot of trust on the ice in an NHL game. You trust the referees to keep a handle on the game, you trust your fellow players to play with safety in mind, and you trust the league will punish those who violate that trust. The league failed Max on two of those three accounts, and I think it's disgusting. He hit the nail on the head himself talking to Bob McKenzie on TSN: "I'm not mad for myself, I'm mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it's okay, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt."

A typically vitriolic and highly coherent rant from our friends at FHF lays out the arguments better than I can about "intent to injure" and the way the league seems to be interpreting that. It's good read, but perhaps even more important is the video still they have posted. I thought I saw Chara's hand on Max's head, but wasn't sure from the footage I saw so I kept my mouth shut. Now I'm sure. It's there. Again, I'm 100% convinced that Chara didn't mean to nearly kill or paralyze Max, but I'm equally convinced that he meant to run Max into that stanchion. Chara isn't generally a dirty player, agreed. He's never been suspended. However, basing suspensions and punitive actions on previous suspensions is a flawed strategy, as HF29 is quick to point out by amusing analogy. If Chara (or anyone else with a clean record) does the same thing next week, will they cite a lack of previous suspensions as reason to not issue any punishment whatsoever?

What I think is interesting, and completely hypocritical of the league, is that there are already rules dealing out additional punishments depending on the outcome of the infraction. High-sticking is a 2-minute minor; drawing blood gets you an extra 2 minutes. Do the referees worry about whether a player "intended" to draw blood? If the league is willing to accept that players have to accept responsibility for the consequences of an unintentional high-stick, why are they so reluctant to have players face responsibility for an accident with far more dire consequences?

The league has sent a message. That message is basically "as long as you don't blatantly look like you intended to hit the player in the head, we don't care if you cause a head injury." Their decision to not suspend Chara is in line with the letter of league law, but is definitely not in line with the spirit of any rule trying to prevent head injuries and seems to spit in the face of the idea of playing safe on the ice. And Max has every right to be furious about the decision.

This message is being heard far and wide, and it is heartwarming to me that corporate sponsors of the NHL seem to have more concern for the players than the league itself. Air Canada, a company that understands concepts like negligence and liability, has taken a firm stand against head injuries by threatening to withdraw their support of the league if they do not take serious and immediate action against headshots. I never thought I would refer to something Air Canada does as "heartwarming," but there you go.

The reason that this is so important is that it's difficult to influence the NHL by consumerism. Thousands of Montrealers could decide that they're going to boycott the rest of the season in protest of this travesty, and the Bell Centre would still sell out. But thanks to business buzzwords like "corporate social responsibility," corporations like Air Canada seem to have sprouted consciences over the last decade and are taking public stands on ethical issues.

And that's what this is. An ethical issue regarding the responsibility of players to each other on the ice and the obligation of the league to its players. It's tragic and utterly shameful that the NHL doesn't seem to recognize this and needs corporations like Air Canada to point it out to them.
Fortunately for the players, they are in a position to significantly influence the league's bottom line, which is apparently the only thing that Bettman, Murphy and co. understand. I find it equally tragic that the NHLPA hasn't taken a stronger stand on head injuries and the safety of their members, and fully expect this to be a serious issue in the next CBA if the NHL continues this negligent practice.

Let us know in the comments what you think of the league's decision, and whether you can think of anything we can do as fans to express our discontent with the league over this incident.

Get well soon, Max.

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