WASHINGTON - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took a tough stance Thursday in the face of a mounting outcry about violence in professional hockey following a brutal check that's left a Montreal Canadien with a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra in his neck.
In the U.S. capital for a series of hockey-related events, Bettman cautioned against "over-legislating" head hits in the wake of the punishing smash into the boards meted out to Max Pacioretty by Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara in a game earlier this week.
The NHL has decided not to suspend Chara.
"Our hockey operations people are extraordinarily comfortable with the decision that they made," Bettman told reporters following a panel discussion on Capitol Hill on the state of the game in the United States.
"It was a horrific injury, we're sorry that it happened in our fast-paced physical game, but I don't think whether or not supplemental discipline was imposed would change what happened and in fact the people in the game who I have heard from almost to a person ... believe that it was handled appropriately by hockey operations."
Neither was Bettman concerned by a threat from Air Canada to end its multi-million-dollar sponsorship of the NHL. All six Canadian NHL teams have charter deals with Air Canada, as do five U.S.-based squads.
In a letter sent to the league on Wednesday, the airline accused the NHL of not doing enough to curtail the sport's violence.
"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," the letter read.
Bettman was unmoved.
"Air Canada is a great brand, as is the National Hockey League," he said.
"And if they decide they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative, just like it's the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don't think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service."
The questions about hockey's dark side came amid an incongruous backdrop on Thursday—Mike Quigley, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, and the so-called Congressional Hockey Caucus held a briefing to discuss, in part, how to get more American kids interested in the game. Bettman was the marquee participant.
The third annual congressional hockey game was also scheduled to be played later Thursday at the city's only indoor ice rink, Fort Dupont. Bettman was set to be among those watching a team that includes Quigley, Sen. John Kerry and congressman Anthony Weiner square off against squad of lobbyists.
And the Chicago Blackhawks—last year's Stanley Cup champions—are headed to the White House on Friday for a visit with U.S. President Barack Obama.
At Quigley's Capitol Hill event, there were slide shows, an emotional testament to the game's greatness from Joe Bowser, an Iraq War amputee who still plays, and some past on-ice stars, including U.S. Olympian Pat LaFontaine.
As they discussed ways to entice more American kids to take up the game, one congressman recalled a young player marvelling: "I can hit people and not get in trouble." There was no apparent acknowledgment of the fierce debate playing out in Canada over that very issue.
When pressed at the end of the event about devastating head hits, Bettman told reporters that the NHL considers player safety "a paramount concern." And he pointed to an apparent trend this year.
"What's interesting ... is that the rise in concussions off of the preliminary data from this season seem to be coming from accidental events, collisions, players falling and banging into other things, not from head hits," he said.
"And so before you over-legislate—because our players are pretty conscious of what they're allowed to do and not allowed to do—you've got to look at the source for what the problem is."