Once upon a time, the hits that caused players to crumple to the ice, get immobilized, carted out the arena on a stretcher and shipped to the hospital with a severe concussion were easy to demonize.
He was head-huntin'! It was a reckless play! There was intent to injure!
Zdeno Chara's(notes) hit on Max Pacioretty(notes) of the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night, which sent Pacioretty's head crashing into the stanchion between the benches in an absolutely frightening scene, was all of those things. And none of those things. Or maybe some of those things.
Polarizing, we believe, is the word of the day in the NHL. This hit and injury are like a Roman candle, the sparks flying in every direction as the embers burn. At issue:
Geography: Did Chara know where he was sending Pacioretty on the hit? He claims it "wasn't my intention to push him to the post." Is this a minor penalty for interference inflated by the significance of the injury and the unfortunate geography of the rink?
Intent: As we mentioned Tuesday night, it's impossible to divorce the history between these two players from the incident Tuesday night, whether it was a factor or not. Had this been Brad Marchand(notes) of the Boston Bruins riding PK Subban's(notes) head into the glass, would the same forces have mobilized to defend him, given their history? Which brings us to ...
Personal Responsibility: If Chara "gave him a little extra" in taking him out of the play because he's Max Pacioretty and the Boston Bruins are down 4-0, should he be responsible for the circumstances? And, according to Chara, it's Pacioretty who should be partially culpable:
"It's very unfortunate that at the same time I push him a little bit he leaned over and jumped a little bit and just hit the glass extension, so it's very unfortunate."
From the coaches to the pundits, everyone has had their say; what do you think Chara deserves for the hit?
(UPDATE: Team 990 in Montreal says that Pacioretty has "severe concussion and fracture of the C4/C5 vertebrae," via Joe Haggerty.)
To reset the debate, here's the hit again:
"I think what people have to understand is Zdeno is not a dirty player," Bruins coach Claude Julien said in his postgame interview with NESN's Naoko Funayama. "He certainly never meant for that to happen. I think if anything he tried to rub him out in the boards. Unfortunately it's the partition that did the damage."
Via the Gazette, here's Habs coach Jacques Martin in a bilingual chat:
"It's serious when you see an injury like that," Martin said. "The league has to deal with those issues. It's not the first time. It seems to be getting worse and worse. The league has to take some responsibility. It was a dangerous hit."
Bob McKenzie of TSN was one of the first major voices calling for Chara to be suspended for his lack of responsibility on the hit:
Certainly, if the partition weren't there, it would have been no more than a two-minute minor for interference and there almost assuredly would have been no injury on the play. But the partition was there and, ultimately, Chara is responsible for the outcome. He made an illegal play that caused injury and even if there was an absence of malice, Chara is still responsible. Them's the breaks, so to speak.
It's no different than when a player goes in to make a shoulder-to-shoulder check on another player by the boards. If the hitter makes contact forcefully enough and the player being hit has his head rap off the glass, causing obvious injury, that player doing the the hitting is going to be assessed a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct and is quite likely to get a suspension. Intent doesn't always have to be the critical factor. Outcome often works as well.
The Vancouver Sun's Cam Cole thinks Chara should sit for a while and "perhaps a long while" for the hit:
Did Chara know the support post was there? Almost certainly. It was right beside the Bruins' bench, past which both players were skating when he began to shove Pacioretty. Did he maliciously push Pacioretty into the post? Speculative, but not out of the question. The two had clashed when Pacioretty scored the winning goal in a January game, and shoved Chara in the back afterward, as he celebrated.
But now, the league is into mind-reading, trying to put itself into Chara's head and determine whether he meant to cause serious injury. And it just doesn't matter. He did.
The Boston Globe's Tony Massarotti points out that this type of hit is far from uncommon, which could speak to intent:
Go back and look, folks. Last week against Tampa Bay, Milan Lucic(notes) executed a similar hit on Dana Tyrell(notes) late in the first period [hit takes place with :25 seconds left in the first period in video]. Tyrell hit the turnbuckle, too. The difference was that Tyrell got up and nobody was carried off, and so we all celebrated the hit and cited it as an example of playoff-caliber hockey.
That hit was as every bit as ill-advised as this one. And so shame on all of us for focusing on the end result instead of the event that led up to it, which undoubtedly will result in Chara receiving some sort of well-earned, multi-game suspension.
The Lucic hit he was speaking about:
The focus now shifts to Pacioretty's recovery, and whether and for how long Chara deserves to be suspended. He was assessed a five minute major penalty for interference and a game misconduct, and deservedly so, but remove bias and emotion from the equation, and the length of any suspension should be assessed on the grounds of negligence rather than pre-meditation, which probably means two to five games if he's suspended at all, because -- like it or not and despite the ugliness of the incident -- the available evidence provides for a fair and reasonable argument that a five minute major penalty and game misconduct is punishment enough.
Denis Potvin said on XM Radio that he was "sickened" in reading the tweets that slammed Chara.
"We've got a bunch of blowhards that just like to hear their own voices. You know what it is to me? It's akin to making a hit and the door to the bench opening, and the guy gets hurt five times worse. That's about as much intent as Chara had to injure a guy on that play."
He also said "the skirts don't play hockey, they comment on it." Which is awesome.
Finally, Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports wasn't just shaken by the scene -- his faith in hockey was shaken:
Is it possible that for all of the talk about preventing injuries and concussions, the real problem is simply the game itself? That the best thing about hockey -- the intensely competitive games, the tremendous skill, speed and power of the players -- is the real danger? That less interference means greater risk? If Zdeno Chara could put his stick on Max Pacioretty, is this blog even being written?
Hockey's at its best but also its most dangerous. And I admit, I don't have an answer for that.
Nor do many of us that love the game.
My take on the hit:
I don't think you can ignore the history of the two players, the time and context of the hit. There's a difference between intent to injure and intent to give a little extra on a play, and I doubt that, in the moment, Chara was all that keen about Pacioretty beating him on the play. Hence the interference, which led to the ghastly result.
The dumbest argument I've read about this hit is this notion that geography should be divorced from the argument; that had it happened anywhere else on the ice, Pacioretty would be fine. That fundamentally changes the situation in an irrevocable way.
We're always talking about player responsibility for knowing the distance to the end boards or hitting a guy's head against the unforgiving glass on a check; suddenly understanding your surroundings is immaterial? And especially at the benches, where players can be literally taken off the ice with a hit over the boards?
I don't think Chara intended to injure him. I don't think Chara wanted to slam Pacioretty's head against the turnbuckle. But you better well know that's a possibility on a hit in that vicinity, and Chara wouldn't be the first player suspended for a thoughtless moment on what is, basically, a minor penalty.
In a hockey world overwhelmed by concussions and intent and stretchers and politics, let's dial it back to a rather basic tenet of justice: Chara did something illegally and took out a vital player for the Habs during a playoff race between the two teams.
At the risk of catering to the my-guy-sits-as-long-as-your-guy-sits crowd, shouldn't that be a simple yet primary factor in this punishment?