Whoa, Canada

It was an awful, horrific, breath-draining, stadium-silencing hit. A man slammed face-first into the vertical edge where the bench ends and the glass begins, fell instantly to the ice, and lay there until a stretcher carried him away. Had Bruin defenseman Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal Canadien left-winger Max Pacioretty during Tuesday’s game come a split-second earlier, Pacioretty likely would have tumbled into the Bruins bench (or been stopped from doing so), gotten up and skated back into the game. Had it come a split-second later, Pacioretty would’ve been momentarily flattened against the boards, and Chara would’ve skated by with Pacioretty in hot pursuit. But the hit occurred at exactly the wrong time, and this was the result.

No matter what we might believe about violence’s place in hockey, this hit was bad for the game. Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture in the fourth vertebrae of his spinal column. He is out indefinitely. Chara received a five-minute major interference penalty for his actions. The hit was reviewed by the NHL, and Chara was not suspended or fined. The league ruled that Chara did not intentionally go for Pacioretty’s head, nor did he do anything more than try to angle himself in front of Pacioretty. The result was unfortunate, and the call on the ice just, but that was all.

It’s at this point that this story takes a turn for the bizarre. Pacioretty was disgusted with the NHL’s lack of further action, a reasonable opinion given how badly hurt he had been. But the citizens of Montreal have taken up Pacioretty’s cause to a degree that even Pacioretty is now uncomfortable with. An online petition has already gotten nearly 1,600 signatures calling for Chara to be criminally charged with assault causing bodily harm. This petition, coupled with a flood of complaints to the Montreal police (Sgt. Ian Lafreniere believes someone in the media has been encouraging Habs fans to call in), has led to an actual criminal investigation of Chara’s hit.

Now, no experts actually think this investigation will go anywhere. In order to prosecute something like this, you’d have to prove that Chara’s hit was above and beyond the normal violence of the sport. Hockey players knowingly accept the risk of a sport that promotes physical play and even fighting. This hit was terrifying, certainly, but can anyone honestly say it was more than an unhappy accident? This hit, at any other spot on the hockey rink, would have barely affected Pacioretty. But at this spot, where the the glass rises unprotected from the bench, the hit snapped his neck back sent him off the ice in an ambulance. So who’s really to blame for this? Chara, or the layout of the Bell Centre?

But even if you could argue Chara was to blame for this, let’s not pretend for one second that this is anything more that vindictiveness disguised as justice. What would have happened if the players were reversed? What if a Canadien had badly injured another player? Would there be a hue and cry for his arrest then? We don’t actually have to wonder about that, because it happened. During Game 1 of the 1989 Wales (Eastern) Conference Finals, Canadien defenseman Chris Chelios slammed his elbow into Philadelphia Flyer left winger Bryan Propp, crushing him against the glass in the process. Propp crashed to the ice, like Pacioretty, and was taken away on a stretcher, like Pacioretty.

Chelios was not suspended for a hit that cost Propp a playoff game and the Flyers possibly the series. So, Montrealers, where was the call for Chelios’s arrest, his blood and his head? Or (gasp) was that hit fine since it happened in a hockey game? How convenient: when the Canadiens badly injure someone, it’s part of the game. When someone else does it, it’s criminal.

Chara is not a dirty player. In his 12 years in the NHL, Chara has never received supplementary discipline (fines or suspensions) for any of his many, many hits. He’s a big, strong guy (6’9″, a conservative 255 lbs.), and he plays big, strong hockey. He has publicly said that he did not intend to injure Pacioretty, that he feels bad about the result of his hit, and that, once time has passed, he will reach out to Pacioretty to personally apologize. You all might hate Chara, and that’s fine. He’s the toughest, most violent player on your most hated, rivaled team. It’s o.k. to hate your rivals, but any time sports fanaticism spills into other areas of life, it’s a recipe for disaster.

You can’t have it both ways. You can either let the law penetrate into the sport you invented, or you can accept that sometimes accidents, even terrible ones, happen. Sometimes they happen to others, sometimes the happen to you. It’s part of the game. You don’t like the violence? Go to Canada.

Oh wait, you’re already there.

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