Monday, March 14, 2011

Chara's Pacioretty hit means a lot for NHL - and all pro sport

Part 3 of our continuing series: An Australian on Ice Hockey.

Part 1: You make excuses for the Habs

Part 2: NHL All-Star Game shakeup a great idea

Part 4: Canadiens vs. Boston the Austin Powers NHL Playoff matchup

Part 5: The Psychology of Choking

The sickening hit Zdeno Chara delivered to Max Pacioretty last week has escaped further sanction as debate continues over the Bruin defenceman's intent. The Montreal Canadiens, up 4-0 against divisional arch-rival Boston, lost one of their developing stars as 22 year-old Pacioretty was checked face-first into the turnbuckle, an area of the boards present in every hockey arena where the protective glass surrounding the ice takes a right-hand turn to allow for the player benches. The impact caused Pacioretty to suffer a fractured vertebra and severe concussion. Chara's penalty was classified as "major" and resulted in five minutes in the penalty box; it was also revealed late last week that Montreal Police have been asked to investigate if there are grounds for criminal prosecution.

Should Chara have been suspended for his action? Almost every NHL commentator and analyst has suggested the incident was unfortunate rather than malicious and as a result, the 6'9 Slovakian's on-ice conduct shouldn't be subjected to further inquiry. Pacioretty has said he wanted the Bruins' captain suspended but not charged criminally but NHL refereeing experts have trotted out the same platitudes: he's not that kind of player, he was just doing his job, it's hockey - these things happen.

But Chara should be punished. This isn't a Canadiens fan ranting at another perceived injustice at the hands of Boston, but simply an example of hockey becoming a microcosm of life. Chara - admittedly - was doing his job in taking an interference penalty to slow down a Hab break. But he did so clumsily and as a result, a player was seriously injured. Anyone who drives a car must accept the consequences of clumsy driving, be they suspensions, jail time or human costs. Chara, the largest player in the NHL, must accept responsibility for the results of his actions.

Just as when Sidney Crosby received two hits against the Tampa Bay Lightning in a January 5 match which cost him the season , a puck-playing skater has been hurt by the actions of a player who "played the man, not the ball". And as head injuries are forced to the forefront of sports administrators, hits to the head like this must stop or else leagues will find themselves in highly actionable positions.

As concussions become an increasingly large headache - pun intended - for hockey, the game's administrators, coaches and players all need to take actions to decrease the number of head injuries sustained. In all of America's major sports, concussions form a large portion of all injuries suffered and the NFL, NBA and NHL are now approaching the point where a standard concussion protocol is instituted meaning clubs, coaches and players have no say in remaining on the field. In this case, if the right boxes are checked, the concussed player is removed from the game.

This standardised concussion protocol is a big topic for NFL and now NBA franchises. After the spate of highly-rated NHLers being taken out and subsequently missing large chunks of time, it will soon be the same for hockey. It's insufficient to take an incident - or even fighting - and say "That's just hockey". For years, helmet-to-helmet contact has been "just football" and now more and more players, administrators and fans are becoming aware of the serious dangers of repeated blows to the head. The cost, both physical and financial has become too great.

Every single person involved in the NHL has a duty of care to the players. It simply doesn't do to have the game's biggest star MIA for six months (and allegedly considering retirement) because "that's just hockey". No one - fans, players or owners - should be robbed of Sidney Crosby for that long because of an avoidable incident. The same is true of Pacioretty: Canadiens fans shouldn't be wondering if he will ever be the same after his horrible injury.

It behoves the NHL to protect their players - their greatest asset - and as such, hits like those of suffered by Pacioretty and Crosby must stop. Outside the arena, the oft-touted example is that of the road-user: when getting behind the wheel of a car, a motorist takes upon themselves a duty of care for other road users. Should you run a red light with no-one around, chances are you will not be punished. Should the consquences of your running the red light be a car accident and a death, then you find yourself at the mercy of a jury of your peers facing serious driving offences. Sport doesn't happen in a vacuum - it reflects the mores of outside society and as such, on-field violence must be curbed.

When you watch the video again and again, you can tell (1.53) that Zdeno Chara knew exactly where he was on the ice when he shoved Pacioretty. He was aware they were near the turnbuckle and was faced with a decision - do the team thing or pull out and hit later. Either it didn't register or he didn't care that Pacioretty faced serious injury which makes his actions not necessarily malicious but negligent in any duty of care he has to fellow professionals. This lack of care in itself should be a sanctionable offence. Given the anti-concussion ruckus is (understandably) player-driven, it makes no sense at all - and is at worst hypocritical - for an athlete to cry foul about head injuries then go out and forcibly and negligently make contact with an opponent's head.

In Australia, the AFL has put into place a framework for administering justice to players where there is minimal room for personal opinion. Any hit is judged as negligent, reckless or intentional; contact is graded as mild, moderate or severe and the location of contact to the opponent's body is also considered. The severity of the injury isn't taken into consideration per se, but given the impact is acknowledged it falls under that category. Repeat offenders are given a percentage loading for past offences. Although inflexible, it has made every player in the league aware that their actions have consequences and as such, concussions have fallen markedly. It is time that such a framework is instituted in American professional sports before a player is hurt more seriously than even Crosby and Pacioretty.

Proessional sport in the USA needs to raise it's conscious levels about concussions lest they find themselves in a litigious position. The excuse that "hockey/football's always been played that way" is bunk: though the collisions have always been there, the athletes our society now produces are a relatively novel phenomenon and the athlete/collision combination (generally) causes greater damage than in days past. If this is not corrected, then sport will suffer due to the lack of stars available.

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