MONTREAL – In a season of nasty hits and concussions in hockey, the one that left Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty lying motionless on the Bell Centre ice may have been the most frightening.
Still, the National Hockey League opted Wednesday not to issue a fine or suspension to Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara for the hit that sent Pacioretty to hospital with a concussion and a fractured neck.
The incident late in the second period of the Canadiens’ 4-1 victory over visiting Boston on Tuesday was replayed countless times on television, once again raising debate on whether the NHL is doing enough to end blows to the head and reduce serious injuries.
“I feel bad about what happened,” Chara said at practice Wednesday before learning Murphy’s decision. “I was trying to make a strong hockey play and play hard and it’s very unfortunate, like I said, that a player got hurt and had to leave the game.”
It reached the House of Commons, where the hit was called ”unacceptable” by Minister of State for Sport Gary Lunn.
Pacioretty, a left-winger from New Canaan, Conn., who had established himself this season as a regular top-line player, suffered a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture to the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck.
With his parents watching from the seats, the 22-year-old had chipped the puck past the six-foot-nine Chara and was chasing it when the Bruins defenceman rode him into the boards and shoved him so that his head slammed into the stanchion holding the glass that separates the two team’s benches.
The crowd of 21,273 went silent as the young Hab lay face down without moving for several minutes before he was wheeled out and taken to hospital. The team said he will be out of action indefinitely.
“I am upset and disgusted that the league didn’t think enough of (the hit) to suspend him,” Pacioretty told TSN on Wednesday. “I’m not mad for myself, I’m mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it’s OK, they won’t be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt.”
Doug Richards, medical director of the McIntosh sports medicine clinic at the University of Toronto and former team doctor for the Toronto Raptors, said such a fracture alone usually takes about three months to heal.
”He’s got a long road back,” said Richards. ”But as long as his fracture is not displaced and it’s stable and he has no spinal cord damage, then there’s no reason for his neck injury to prevent him from returning to hockey.”
Head injuries have been a huge topic of debate this season as Boston playmaker Marc Savard and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, the league’s brightest star who was enjoying a career season, have been sidelined with concussions resulting from blows to the head.
The league brought in stiffer penalties for blindside hits to the head this season and several suspensions of between three and six games have been issued, but the issue is expected to come up again when NHL general managers meet next week in Boca Raton, Fla.
Chara, who is not known to be a dirty player and has never been suspended in his 13-year career, said he had no intention to injure Pacioretty. He was given a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct on the play.
There has been bad blood between the teams this season, including a fight-filled 8-6 Bruins’ win in Boston last month in which 187 penalty minutes were called.
In January, Pacioretty, who had been slashed by Chara earlier, touched off a melee by giving the Bruins defenceman a shove after scoring an overtime goal.
The Canadiens have won four of five meetings between the Northeast Division rivals this season.
NHL senior vice-president Mike Murphy, who rules on issues involving Boston because league disciplinarian Colin Campbell’s son Gregory plays for the team, called the Chara hit “a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface.
“After a thorough review of the video I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. 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.
“I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, 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.”
Montreal Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier offered no comment about the NHL’s ruling.
“The NHL made it’s decision and it’s not for us to express our opinion publicly,” he said in a statement.
Montreal goaltender Carey Price had been more direct earlier in the day.
”Looking at the replay, it looked pretty blatantly obvious what was trying to be done there,” said Price ”It’s pretty sad to see someone take someone’s life into their hands like that.”
“What I remember about it was the sound—it sounded like a gun: bang!” said Pacioretty’s linemate Scott Gomez. “Stuff like that is tough to look at.”
Craig Button, a former NHL general manager now a hockey analyst for TSN and The Hockey Network, wasn’t buying Chara’s defence, saying it may be the first time a major penalty was ever assessed for interference. That it happened with 15.8 seconds left in the second period of a game the Canadiens led 4-0 made it even more unnecessary, he said.
He added that the NHL was courting disaster by not staking a strong stand against head hits and questionable plays and that players ”are being put at unnecessary risk of a life-time injury.
”Any blow to the head and you’re out of the game with supplementary discipline—we’ve got to get to that. What are you waiting for? Someone’s head to snap?”
In Ottawa, responding to a question in the House of Commons from Sudbury NDP member Glenn Thibeault, who called it a ”shattering on-ice head shot” and asked the Conservative government to support a bill to reduce concussions and serious injuries in amateur sport, Lunn said he saw the incident and hoped the NHL takes it seriously.
”This type of hitting is unacceptable,” Lunn said.
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said his player remained in hospital for observation.
“The most important thing for our organization right now is Max’s recovery,” he said. ”We will continue following recommendations from the doctors and of course, Max and his immediate family would appreciate privacy in this matter.”
Canadiens winger Michael Cammalleri called for the glass partitions between player benches to be taken out of NHL arenas.
Former NHL player Mike Johnson said eliminating the hits that lead to serious injuries will mean changng the hockey ”culture” that encourages physical play.
”With the size and speed of players and the amount of concussions we’re seeing, I think players are changing but it will take time,” said Johnson, an analyst for TSN. ”Maybe it takes guys getting hurt for players to think that OK it’s not against the rules, but it’s something we’re not going to do.”