March 09, 2011
For those who feel the NHL has been neglectful in aggressively policing hits to the head out of the game, it's often asked what, exactly, will get the League's attention.
Former stars whose careers were cut short by concussions speaking out? Scientific studies showing the degenerative effects headshots have on the brain? A season in which several high-profile players, including Sidney Crosby(notes), were lost to concussions?
In the end, perhaps it's money that speaks the loudest.
According to Bruce Garrioch of QMI, a letter written by Air Canada's director of marketing communications Denis Vandal and addressed to Gary Bettman threatens to pull the major sponsor's support of the NHL if there isn't more action taken on headshots and player safety in the League.
"We are contacting you (Wednesday) to voice our concern over (Tuesday night's) incident involving Max Pacioretty(notes) and Zdeno Chara(notes) at the Bell Centre in Montreal," wrote Vandal. "This is following several other incidents involving career-threatening and life-threatening headshots in the NHL recently."
Vandal noted the controversial issue is becoming bad for Air Canada's brand.
"From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality.
"Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey."
A cynical approach to this news would be that it capitalizes on the wave of outrage sweeping through Canada over the lack of punishment for Zdeno Chara. And the thought that this is some kind of PR opportunism given the gravity of the situation is stomach-turning.
Also, the notion of a sponsor attempting to influence the on-ice product, as altruistic as its aim may be, can't be something fans see as a positive development.
The real issue? Whether other sponsors find it "becoming increasingly difficult to associate [their] brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents." Because while Air Canada's on its soapbox, the NHL is sitting on a pile of sponsorship money, having grown revenue 32 percent from 2008-10.
Bridgestone, Cisco Systems, McDonald's, Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, BlackBerry, Discover and Hershey's all have new deals with the NHL this season, and MillerCoors inked a new $400 million deal. What do they think?