An Open Letter to the NHL

To whom it may and should concern:

I have been a hockey fan for the last 25 years of my life, and have never had occasion to contemplate the writing of a letter to the league I have watched since my childhood. The events that transpired last night during the Montreal – Boston game and the outcome published in today’s media, set against a backdrop of escalating recklessness and seeming indifference from league officials, has made it difficult to contain my disappointment. While I am under no illusions that one letter from one fan will give any of you great pause to consider the state of affairs in professional hockey, I hope you will at least read the remainder of what I have to write.

I will admit that I am a fan, in particular of the Montreal Canadiens, and that in this admission I place myself in a category that the media and so-called hockey experts downplay as emotional zealots not well acquainted with rational and objective analysis. As you can imagine, I disagree with their assessment. I love hockey because it can be a beautiful, exciting, surprising sport of skill and talent. I am a fan of Montreal because I believe they embody those things. But, that doesn’t mean that I am unthinking or unreasoned, nor do I think being a fan of a team makes my anger or disappointment at something that happened to that team any less valid than the opinions of sports analysts or league executives. I’m an educated professional, like yourselves, and hope that my opinions are not treated with any less seriousness.

Last night I watched a frustrated team begin to get more and more physically aggressive in response to being outplayed and outskilled. They put their toughest, most physical players on the ice looking to get into an altercation, no doubt to try and swing momentum back in their favour. This culminated with possibly the most brutal, frightening and most dangerous hit I have witnessed in 25 years as a fan.

When Zdeno Chara threw Max Pacioretty into the stanchion in front of the Boston bench, I actually thought he might have been killed. I can’t recall ever watching a hockey game and feeling so certain that an on ice play had resulted in the death of a player. Pacioretty lay motionless for minutes surrounded by teammates and medical personnel while commentators tried to figure out what had happened. In years gone by it might have been harder, but with slow motion replay and multiple camera angles, it’s hard for a fan or official to miss things. And, what the replays showed clearly was a race for the puck, and Chara shoving Pacioretty along the boards, finally looking up at the glass before extending his hand and arm and throwing Pacioretti over the boards into the stanchion.

It’s unequivocal. You can watch it a thousand times on video. His head comes up, his arm goes out, Pacioretty is propelled into the glass and crumpled to the ice.

The debate is all about intention and malice. I don’t live in Chara’s head, so I can’t say what he was thinking. The fact is Boston was frustrated. The fact is they were looking to start something. The fact is Chara and Pacioretti had crossed paths before. Simply, I think he wanted to hit Pacioretty hard. I don’t think he aimed his head at the stanchion, but he knew the stanchion was there and likely knew Pacioretty was going to hit it; Chara was looking right at it. By not easing up, rather by extending his arm in that final shove, Chara recklessly put the life and career of a young player at risk because of his frustration and anger.

The league has chosen not to fine or suspend Chara for his actions. I think a fine is an insult to the principle, so I agree a fine should not be levied. However, not suspending Chara because the hit was not deemed to be dangerous or intentional sends a chilling message that seems to be more frequently heard this year: play at your own risk, because we won’t police you.

This is not a complaint solely against the inaction of the league in the case of Zdeno Chara. Unfortunately, the league’s unwillingness to send a clear message by imposing supplementary discipline against Chara is only the most obvious and gross example of a growing trend this year. Despite passionate words and stern admonishment from league officials and team representatives, the NHL has shown an utter disregard for the safety of its players by allowing transgressions and dangerous plays to go relatively unpunished or punished only by a fine. How many games will Marc Savard miss before he returns to play, if he ever does? How many games will the sport’s superstar, Sidney Crosby miss? How many players have suffered concussions this year because of dirty plays or dangerous hits, and how many games will those players miss in comparison to the games sat out by the players that put them there? It’s an unequal proposition: an injury lasting three weeks is punished, if at all, by a handful of games. Last night is merely an example of the league’s willingness to stomach play that has no place in the sport.

Pacioretty could have been killed. This is not an overstatement or exaggeration. He has suffered a fractured vertebra and a severe concussion. The fractured vertebra could have spelled the end of his life or his ability to move. The severe concussion could still cost him his career or his effectiveness in future play. And, this occurred because the league’s biggest and most powerful player acted with reckless disregard for the safety of an opponent and lashed out in frustration. The fact that the league is turning a blind eye on this is disgraceful, disgusting and transparently greedy. I can honestly say I’m ashamed to be a fan of the sport today.

My hope is that the league will revisit their methods and protocols for dealing with dangerous hits such as the one last night. Players who commit infractions that result in the injury of another player should be penalized in a severe fashion, because it’s the only way players will learn to respect eachother and the responsibility they have toward their colleagues. If a player is injured by a dangerous hit, the player committing the infraction should be out for as long as the injured player. That, or the suspensions should be incrementally severe, starting with a dozen games for the first and ending with expulsion from the league after the third. This might all sound draconian, but ask Marc Savard whether he feels sympathy if Matt Cooke were to miss 12 games. Until the league starts taking these dangerous plays seriously, fans can only wait and cringe until a play like the one we witnessed last night happens again. And, maybe this time the player won’t get up. Does someone actually need to die before the NHL looks at this as more than just entertainment?

Thank you for reading.

This letter has been forwarded to Gary Bettman, the NHL Officials Association and TSN so far. I’m still looking for more email addresses…