An inside look at NHL’s decision on Chara-Pacioretty

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

BOCA RATON, Fla. – The man who made the decision sat outside in a black shirt, going over his notes after lunch at the NHL general managers’ meetings, a calm, serene sunny view of the Atlantic Ocean behind him.

Mike Murphy(notes) couldn’t have seemed more comfortable. He knows the storm that swirled last week after he decided not to fine or suspend Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara(notes) for hitting Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty(notes) into a Bell Centre stanchion, leaving Pacioretty with a concussion and a fractured vertebra. But the senior vice-president of hockey operations believes he did the right thing and did it the right way, and no one – not even Stephen Harper, the prime minister of his native Canada – has shaken that belief.

“Well, I respect his opinion,” Murphy said of Harper, who said after the Chara-Pacioretty incident that the NHL needed to take a serious look at player safety “for its own sake.” “But I’m not sure his opinions are for the right reasons and that he knows all the details of what goes on in a play like that.

“As respectfully as I can say this, I say that about most people who’ve voiced an opinion on it. They don’t know or have the experience of dealing with these things like the group of people I called on do – their feel for the game, their understanding of the game, their understanding of the play. So I relied more heavily on them than people outside our sport.”

Whatever you think of Chara’s hit, Pacioretty’s injury or Murphy’s decision, it’s instructive to know how and why Murphy did what he did. It sheds light on how the NHL works behind the scenes and how people inside the league really feel about the state of the game, as the GMs discuss ways to keep the sport fast and physical while finding ways to protect the players.

Murphy, 61, is a veteran NHL player, assistant coach, head coach and executive. Last Tuesday night, he was working in the NHL’s war room, an office in downtown Toronto filled with video equipment where the hockey operations department monitors every game. He saw Chara hit Pacioretty, receiving a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct. He saw Pacioretty leave the ice on a stretcher, headed for the hospital.

Murphy knew the responsibility to determine supplemental discipline was his, because senior executive vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell, the usual dean of discipline, stays out of situations involving the Bruins because his son Gregory plays for them.

After Tuesday night’s games ended, Murphy watched the Chara-Pacioretty hit again and again, probably 50 times. He said he watched it mostly by himself. Most important, he said he watched it mostly in real time, not in slow motion, not with freeze frames.

“I don’t think slow motion tells you what happens,” Murphy said. “In slow motion, you start thinking like it’s happening slow, and it’s not happening slow. It’s happening fast. In analyzing the play, that was the one thing I tried to really go back to. What happened in fast speed?”

Pacioretty, listed at 6-foot-2, 196 pounds, chipped the puck past Chara and sprinted along the left-wing boards. Chara, at 6-9, 255, angled him off and gave him a last-second shove. Pacioretty struck the stanchion and dropped to the ice.

“Max Pacioretty is an extremely fast player, big player, and Chara’s a big player and has good speed,” Murphy said. “This all unfolded at about 50 miles an hour. That’s how fast they move from the blue line, where Max chipped it, to the red line, where the stanchion is. I tried to get a feel for the speed and the decision-making of both players.”

Murphy went home and brooded about it. He got up the next morning and watched more replays, using TV sports shows to find all the angles he could. He saw some in slow motion. He saw the still photo that seemed to damn Chara – showing Chara’s hands up high and Pacioretty’s head striking the stanchion, the padding bowing – but stressed it was a still photo and said: “We have to be careful not to let that influence us.” He continued to rely on real-time replays.

At noon, Murphy held a phone hearing with Chara. But he didn’t just talk to Chara. He said he sought the opinions of players, coaches and general managers who had “no agenda in it,” mostly in the Western Conference. Campbell often does the same when considering supplemental discipline.

Asked how many people he canvassed, Murphy said: “I’d rather not say. Just a significant amount. I can tell you that.”

How did they feel?

“The vast majority of the people felt like I did,” Murphy said.

And so Murphy made his decision. No fine. No suspension. He had to know there would be a strong reaction, but he said: “I didn’t pay a tremendous amount of attention to what was going to happen politically. I worried more about what was the right thing to do for the game, and sometimes those two things collide. They don’t align themselves – what’s right for the game and what’s right politically. We live in a hockey world. We’re not tied to a political world much.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has to worry about politics, but only in the aftermath. He stays out of supplemental discipline because the appeals come to him, so when he spoke to Murphy, he wanted to know the details of how and why Murphy had made his decision but left it at that. “My ultimate control is I can change who does supplemental discipline if I don’t like the job, but he makes the decision,” Bettman said.

As soon as the NHL released its statement from Murphy, explaining that he could “find no basis to impose supplemental discipline” on Chara, the storm struck. Cries of injustice came from outside the league – from the media, to league sponsors like Air Canada, to politicians like Harper. The Montreal police began an investigation. Cries of injustices came from the Canadiens, too.

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson wrote a letter to fans in which he said Murphy’s decision “shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard.” Pacioretty told TSN he was “upset and disgusted that the league didn’t think enough of [the hit] to suspend” Chara. Habs GM Pierre Gauthier said the NHL needed to “address where we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”

Others inside the league had dissenting opinions as well, but they clearly were in the minority. “I’ve got a different view than some,” Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero said. “I thought it was probably a suspendable hit, but not everybody agrees with that. That’s part of the thing with our sport, not everybody agrees with what a suspension should be, and it’s subjective.”

Said Bettman: “With respect to whether or not supplemental discipline should have been imposed on Chara, I took a poll of the general managers, and overwhelmingly they believe that the right decision was made in that case and that no supplemental discipline should have been imposed.”

When Murphy arrived at the GM meetings, it’s not like he was swamped with comments from his colleagues. He said he spoke only briefly with Gauthier on Monday morning. He said he had not spoken much with anyone about the Chara-Pacioretty incident.

“I think we’re trying to deal with a bigger issue of how we can keep our game as entertaining and as fast and exciting as it is, but make it safer for the players,” Murphy said. “The way we need to manage and police ourselves is right for the game of hockey. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for Canada as a nation or the U.S. as a nation. It’s outside the politics of normal society.”

You can argue that’s the problem – that the NHL is an insular organization, with officials who lock themselves in a bunker, who consult only themselves, who accept things that wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere else. Murphy said they live in “a hockey world.” In his statement about the Chara-Pacioretty incident, he famously called it “a hockey play.”

But hockey has never been a mirror of normal society. Where else is the penalty for fighting only five minutes? As Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has said multiple times, hockey is a dangerous game with no out of bounds, and the players all have volunteered to take the risk of entering the arena.

Whether that is right is in a greater context was not part of the debate in this context.

“I think people should realize that we look at this with clear glasses,” Murphy said. “We’re not [wearing] rose-colored glasses. We’re not trying to favor one team or another team, a player or another player. We do lots of these. We talk about these all the time. We have kind of a standard operating procedure for these types of plays. …

“It’s important for me to do the investigation of what happened. When you have an egregious injury like we did here, everybody’s emotions really get high. You really have to just …”

Murphy paused.

“The injury is very relevant and was very relevant, and we’re hopeful Pacioretty comes back soon and plays,” Murphy continued. “That would be the best part of the whole thing. The sooner he gets back, the better. Although I can’t give him back the time he’s on the sidelines – or we can’t give him back – that’s just the way it is when something like this happens.”

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