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NHL again in no man's land in painful Chara fallout

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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So the top prosecutor in the province of Quebec, responding to a flood of irate callers, has asked Montreal police to investigate an interference call on Bruins captain Zdeno Chara that landed Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty in the hospital.

Meanwhile, Air Canada, a major sponsor of Canada's six franchises, has threatened to pull its dollars unless the NHL "takes immediate action to curtail these life-threatening injuries."

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Even Canada's federal government weighed in after Pacioretty suffered a concussion and broken cervical vertebrae, with the minister of sports calling for "multi-, multi-game suspensions" for plays like the one the Boston Bruins' defenseman made.

We can only guess that some folks north of the border still need to generate hot air for warmth at this time of year.

Certainly the scary visuals from the incident provided plenty of easy oxygen. But the NHL didn't help matters with another mixed-message response to the hot-button issue of player safety. And that's a mess the league's general managers will try to help clean up with under a microscope when they meet next week in Florida.

At least they'll be used to it.

The GMs went through much the same thing last year because Matt Cooke sent Marc Savard off on a stretcher just a few days before their meetings. Blindside hits targeting the head were already high on the agenda because of the injury David Booth had suffered from a Mike Richards hit, but Cooke's timing brightened the spotlight.

Now Chara's unsightly hit has done the same. And finding an answer will be more difficult than last March when the GMs came up with the framework for Rule 48, which outlawed blindsides to the head.

It was hailed as a step in the right direction for player safety, but a year later, no one can say for sure how well the rule has worked, because concussions are up this season. Mind you, the early data suggests blindside hits are less the reason for the increase than other physical and often violent elements of the game, like fighting and high-speed legal collisions -- the kinds of things the majority of general managers and players believe have to be protected as fundamental to their game.

It's part of the conventional mindset in hockey, but with the growing number of players -- including the league's biggest star, Sidney Crosby -- now sidelined, the GMs are under pressure to recommend better ways of protecting their prime assets. As long as they don't mess with the basic nature of their game, that is.

Zdeno Chara's clean discipline record was likely a factor in the NHL's decision. (Getty Images)  
Zdeno Chara's clean discipline record was likely a factor in the NHL's decision. (Getty Images)  
Not exactly an easy fix. Players want to keep the game fast and physical even if there is risk of injury, and so do their bosses, who understand that's what sells.

That's why the league took the position -- incidentally not challenged by the players association -- that Chara's interference was illegal, but nothing more than an aggressive and typical hockey play that resulted in an unfortunate accident. And since Chara has never been disciplined before, his game misconduct was ruled to make supplementary discipline unnecessary.

Still, the visuals were frightening and something the league as a business has to consider. From a distance, the view was of a player getting seriously hurt and a star getting away with a reckless and dangerous illegal play, regardless of intent. For that alone, Pacioretty said Chara deserved at least to token suspension.

"I'm not talking a big number, one game, two games, three games ... whatever, but something to show that it's not right," Pacioretty told the TSN network from his hospital bed. "If other players see a hit like that and think it's OK, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt."

Problem is that's almost inevitable given how most players are conditioned not to think about those things until it's too late. The league's suspensions this season, which have generally been arbitrary and varying in length, haven't really made much of an impression either.

And they probably won't any time soon. In essence, the intent of Rule 48 and the NHL's disciplinary process has been to effect a change in players' attitudes toward each other on the ice, mainly to avoid taking advantage of an opponent who is in a vulnerable position. But in just about every game, there are instances of players still not holding back and delivering dangerous hits. Often they go unpenalized, or minimally, as with Chara.

It's part of the culture that is a challenge to change.

"There are two types of hits in hockey -- the kind that are strategic and tactical, designed to get the guy off the puck and make a play, and then there's the kind when you catch another guy in a vulnerable position and try to inflict some damage," Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri told the Canadiens website. "Ever since you're a kid you're taught, 'If you're going to try and hit somebody, try and hurt him.'"

"It's how a lot of people are taught to play when they're young, and it makes it a tough mandate to change that attitude."

Especially since no one really seems to want to. In spite of all the hot air.

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