Chara hit: If it's 'a hockey play,' what's next?

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

So it was just an accident? So Zdeno Chara(notes) didn't do anything wrong when he hit Max Pacioretty(notes)? So it isn't Chara's fault that Pacioretty's head smacked into a stanchion between the benches and Pacioretty suffered a concussion and a broken neck?

So Chara skates free – other than the major penalty for interference and the game misconduct he received Tuesday night in the Boston Bruins' 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens – while Pacioretty faces a long, difficult recovery and an uncertain future?

I accept that accidents happen in hockey. Guys get hurt. It's a contact sport.

And I have to admire the guts of NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations Mike Murphy(notes), who reviewed video of the incident, conducted a telephone hearing with Chara and announced Wednesday that he could "find no basis to impose supplemental discipline," knowing full well the outcry that would come from at least some corners of the hockey world.

But nothing?

"This was a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface," Murphy said in a statement.

OK. It was a hockey play. But it comes at a time when concussions and questionable hits are plaguing the game, and the result was so severe and the punishment so light that you have to wonder: Why is this a hockey play? What's next? Will a player be paralyzed? Will somebody die?

Look at what happened again. First, in real time. In a matter of seconds, Pacioretty plays the puck. Chara, the big defenseman, rubs him out along the boards – apparently because he doesn't want to be beaten by the quicker winger on the rush. Pacioretty strikes the stanchion and falls to the ice. He goes off on a stretcher and travels to the hospital in an ambulance, having suffered a concussion and a non-displaced fracture of his fourth vertebra.

"This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly – with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards," Murphy said.

Now, slow it down. The hit is clearly late. Chara gives him a last-second shove. Did the history of shoves and scuffles between the teams and the players play a role? How about the score – 4-0 for the Habs, very late in the second period? Did Chara see the stanchion?

"I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, that Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous," said Murphy, who also considered that Chara has never been involved in supplemental discipline in his 13-year NHL career.

I don't think Chara is a dirty player. I don't think the hit was a dirty hit. Even if Chara intended to finish his check hard, I don't think he had any intention to do that. If there is no stanchion in that spot, there is probably no injury.

The thing is, there was a stanchion in that spot, and you don't have to be a dirty player or commit a dirty act to destroy someone's career or maybe even his life. If you hit someone, you must be responsible for how you do it and where you do it.

The NHL is pushing the envelope. Players have state-of-the-art training, nutrition and equipment. The league has outlawed obstruction and removed the red line, and it has introduced a salary cap and points for overtime losses. In other words, players are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before. The speed of the game has increased, and so has the competition for multi-million-dollar contracts and playoff spots. The action is thrilling. The standings are tight.

But the physics are the same. Force still equals mass times acceleration. And the game is still played on steel blades on hard ice within the confines of boards and glass. As Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke says, there is no out of bounds.

Chara is listed at 6-foot-9, 255 pounds. He's one of the largest players in the game, and that's literally a huge factor – to opponents, when he uses his size against them, and to himself, when his size works against him. When Chara collides with someone like Pacioretty, who is 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds himself, something's got to give. Add something like a stanchion to the equation – and there will always be something like a stanchion lurking, no matter how you try to bubble-wrap the rink – and the result can be catastrophic.

Respect? You can't expect respect. You can't ask people to compete their hardest while upholding some lofty, noble ideal. It's just not practical. Coaches and players are going to push themselves to the limit. That's what they should do. That's what we want them to do. That's their job – to do everything they can within the rules to win.

The only solution is to re-examine the rules and the enforcement of them. When the NHL’s general managers meet next week in Boca Raton, Fla., they should talk about slowing down the game, better defining late hits, banning all checks to the head and stiffening supplemental discipline.

Maybe the red line should be re-introduced. Maybe players shouldn't be allowed to hit opponents after they have released the puck, the way defensive linemen aren't allowed to hit the quarterback once he releases the ball in football. Maybe a ban on all checks to the head would eliminate the gray area when a player makes a split-second decision whether to strike someone. Maybe larger fines and longer suspensions will make it in everyone's self-interest to avoid dangerous plays.

Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference Tuesday night. But doing nothing is not the answer.

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