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Head-shot controversy touches NHL's most sensitive area: its wallet

MONTREAL - Air Canada's threat to hit the NHL where it hurts—in its wallet—proved to be a lonely battle Thursday.

Other sponsors refrained from jumping aboard a public push from the country's leading airline against hockey violence.

The league itself reacted with defiance to a threat by Air Canada. Commissioner Gary Bettman suggested his circuit could do just fine if the airline took its business elsewhere.

Air Canada released a letter Thursday where it threatened to withdraw its sponsorship following a violent headshot to Habs player Max Pacioretty by Zdeno Charo of the Boston Bruins.

Other companies took a less aggressive approach.

Tim Hortons has seen its celebrity spokesman—Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby—sidelined for nearly three months with a concussion.

But the iconic coffee chain wouldn't go as far as threaten its league sponsorship.

Instead, it encouraged "the NHL, the teams and general managers and the NHL Players' Association to continue to work towards addressing concerns with head injuries."

Canadian Tire, for its part, said it is "deeply committed to the passion of the sport, including safe play, skills development and promoting team work."

Major sponsors such as Molson Coors, which recently was named the official beer of the NHL, Cisco, and Hershey's, have chosen to remain silent on the issue.

Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) said Thursday it was taking a position at this time to ensure the league acts on violence.

Its threat came after the NHL declined to suspend the Boston Bruins defenceman.

"There have been a number of incidents regarding head shots and concussions this past season which have resulted in wide-spread public concern which we share," spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said a day after a letter was sent to the league.

Bettman responded to Air Canada's threat by saying other carriers would step in to replace Air Canada if it no longer wanted the NHL's business.

"It is 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," he said during a Washington news conference.

All six Canadian teams and five U.S.-based teams charter Air Canada flights.

Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, described Bettman's response as childish bravado that may not get full support from moderate U.S. owners worried about insurance costs and risks to their marquee players.

He said the league faces a financial threat—even if existing sponsors remain loyal.

"The major impact will be sponsors they have been hunting will now have more of a negative tick against sponsoring NHL hockey relative to other options," he said in an interview.

Another professor agreed it's not yet clear how the issue will play out.

Laval University sports marketing professor Andre Richelieu said the airline's threat could eventually prompt others to press the league to act.

"(It) might have a domino effect and encourage other sponsors to raise the same issue and ask the NHL to clean the house and do it quickly and concretely."

Richelieu said companies could eventually waver if they determine that NHL violence would tarnish their own brands by association.

The two sports-marketing professors said they have never heard of sponsors going after a league because of excess violence.

Sponsors typically withdraw funding only to disassociate themselves from an embarrassing scandal, as was the case last year with golfer Tiger Woods.

In addition to charter contracts with teams, Air Canada has the naming rights in Toronto for the home of the Maple Leafs and NBA Raptors.

WestJet Airlines (TSX:WJA) said it has no interest in taking its rival's NHL sponsorship or rebranding Toronto's arena as the WestJet Centre.

Maple Leaf Sports&Entertainment Ltd., which owns the Toronto arena, said it expects Air Canada will continue to honour the name-rights agreement that dates back to 1999.

That could leave the airline in a bind.

Air Canada may have little choice but to make good on its threat unless its initiative leads to league action, Middleton added.

"It's like in poker—if you've called the bluff and they call you, you better be prepared to deliver on it."

He said Air Canada may have been emboldened to act because of a groundswell of public concern resulting from a series of recent player concussions.

He said they also have more leverage than a standard sponsor like a beer company, which would be replaced by a rival in a heartbeat.

Later Thursday, Habs owner Geoff Molson issued a public letter expressing his, "frustration, disappointment and shock" over the issue—and he said Bettman had agreed to make safety a priority issue at next week's league meetings.



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