MONTREAL – Montreal Canadiens fans chanted, ranted about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and scribbled their names on petitions against hockey violence at a rally in the wake of a hit that sidelined one of their players.
Even scalpers got into the act at the rally held just before a showdown between the Canadiens and the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, alternating cries for tickets with a chant of “Bettman sucks.”
Rally organizers said about 1,000 people signed a petition against hockey violence that will be sent to Bettman.
The boisterous yet peaceful protest followed a decision by the NHL to give a pass to Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who drove Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty into a stanchion during a game, rendering fans who saw the hit speechless.
“I felt like one of my friends got hit that night,” said Jean-Francois Dube, one of the rally organizers who saw the hit that put Pacioretty in hospital last week. “It was really emotional.”
Dube said he felt that type of action shouldn’t be tolerated.
“I thought it was time to do something to at least show that fans cannot accept this,” he said. “This is our national sport so we want to protect it.”
Dube said the league isn’t doing enough and rules need to be toughened. The petition called for head hits to be banned.
“There’s a mentality that they need to change in the NHL right now,” he said.
Others at the rally echoed his comments, saying they were stunned Chara wasn’t penalized.
“Hockey’s not about the violence, it’s about the game,” said Lanni Frankel, a marketing manager who attended the protest. “This is somebody’s life.”
Chara, who got a game misconduct from a referee after the incident, has said he didn’t intend to injure Pacioretty, who suffered a concussion and fractured vertebra.
Montreal police are investigating the incident and the NHL’s decision has drawn widespread criticism ranging from fans to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Bettman, who is attending a meeting of league general managers in Florida, has said he stands by his decision.
Fan Howard Roth, of St-Lazare, Que., wants to see Olympic hockey rules applied to the NHL.
“No touch icing, no head shots,” he said. “None of that’s tolerated in their rule book.”
He scoffed at Bettman, calling him a lawyer whose “protecting his legal derriere.”
“He doesn’t have the courage and conviction to stand up for what’s right,” said Roth, who held a sign comparing Bettman to unpopular former U.S. president George W. Bush.
Dean Kalaidjian, who was encouraging people to sign a handmade get well card for Pacioretty, said the NHL has to protect its players better.
“Even if it wasn’t an intentional hit, it’s too dangerous to be allowed,” he said, adding Chara should have gotten a suspension to send a message to all the players.
Despite his injuries, Pacioretty turned up at the Bell Centre to visit with his teammates and speak to the team doctor on Tuesday evening. He went back home before the game started.
“Going to the game tonight to show the boys some support … going to be good to see everyone again,” he tweeted.
Earlier, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has a message for fans who don’t want to see players injured by hits to the head in hockey.
“If you don’t like it, don’t come to the games,” he said. “I think players realize they could get hurt.
“They don’t want to do it, but unless you’ve played and seen what goes on with the speed of the game, you’re not going to be able to argue with it.”
Boudreau also questioned the motives of Tuesday’s protesters, saying they would likely not be so upset if it had been a Boston player who was injured.
“I don’t want to get into a controversy, but what if that was (Montreal’s) Hal Gill that hit (Boston’s) David Krejci?” he asked. “I don’t think there would be a protest going on here today.”
His comments didn’t sit well with people at the rally.
“I think it’s a naive, ignorant statement,” said Roth, who added that he felt nauseous when he saw Pacioretty hit.
Dube, who urged people to sign the anti-violence petition at the rally, said Boudreau shouldn’t underestimate the feelings of fans who spend a lot of money supporting the game.
“This league is about their fans. Without their fans, there’s no hockey.”
Pacioretty hit his head on a stanchion holding up the glass that separates the players benches. The Capitals were alarmed at their skate Tuesday morning that no extra padding had been added to the stanchion.
A Canadiens spokesman said the rink has NHL standard padding and it won’t be changed until the league approves a new type of padding. The NHL is expected to adopt thicker, safer padding before next season.
The Bell Centre is one of six NHL arenas that has tempered glass around the boards instead of more flexible acrylic panes. They are all expected to change over next season under a league plan announced this week to make arenas safer for players.
Caps veteran Mike Knuble called the Bell Centre “a hard building to play in.”
“The glass is way too hard,” he said. ”It’s so heavy and it doesn’t give.
“Your head is going off it and it doesn’t give. I feel bad for the players who have to play here a lot.”