TORONTO (Reuters) - As the uproar over Zdeno Chara’s horrific hit on Max Pacioretty subsided on Friday, the spotlight shifted back to the ice and whether it will ever again be business as usual for the National Hockey League.
Replays of the hulking Boston Bruins defenseman riding a speeding Pacioretty into a rinkside partition on Tuesday that left the Montreal Canadiens player with a concussion and broken vertebrae have faded along with much of the outrage that fans directed at the NHL for letting the incident go unpunished.
So after two days of super-heated rhetoric and emotions, calmer voices were being heard on Friday.
Pacioretty, since released from hospital, issued a statement asking that the incident that left his career in limbo not end up in Quebec court while Canadian politicians who added their voices to the hockey violence debate have since moved onto more pressing business.
It could take several days or weeks, however, for the NHL to assess the full impact of Chara’s hit on league business.
Shortly after the ugly incident, Air Canada, one of the NHL’s major sponsors, delivered a blindside hit of its own in a letter to the league and its six Canadian franchises saying it could no longer in good conscious continue to sponsor a league unwilling to reel in escalating violence.
“Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey.” wrote Denis Vandal, Air Canada’s director of marketing and communications.
In a sport that embraces fighting, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman brushed off Air Canada’s concerns with a terse response that made it clear sponsors, no matter how big, would not dictate league policy.
Speaking to media following a meeting with U.S. politicians on Capitol Hill, Bettman could barely contain his anger telling Montreal-based Air Canada it was free to take its sponsorship elsewhere.
“Air Canada is a great brand, as is the National Hockey League, and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that’s their prerogative,” said Bettman.
While sponsors have jettisoned endorsement deals with scandal-ravaged athletes such Tiger Woods and Michael Vick, it is rare, if not unprecedented, that a company has threatened to dump an entire league and done so in such a public forum rather than behind closed doors.
But daring Air Canada to take its sponsorship elsewhere, could prove risky for a league that can ill afford to alienate partners.
”Sponsors today feel more empowered to do what is necessary to protect their brand,“ Rick Horrow, sports lecturer at Harvard Law School told Reuters. ”I know the NHL is incredibly concerned about protecting their image but they are also concerned about attracting and maintaining sponsors.
“This issue of excessive violence is an incredibly emotional issue to fans, the league and sponsors so in many ways what is happening is unique and unprecedented.”
While the NHL boasts that it has seen television ratings and popularity rise, the league remains on shaky financial footing in numerous U.S. markets and calling out Air Canada is unlikely to endear the league to potential new partners.
The NHL, however, appears to have contained any widespread sponsorship revolt with none of the league’s other partners lining up behind Air Canada.
Alone, Air Canada’s threats are unlikely to have any impact on the NHL, Bill Sutton, a professor at University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sports Business Program, told Reuters.
But if other sponsors were to get on board with the airline, the NHL could be forced to finally deal with the thorny issues, such as removing fighting from the game.
”The NHL has lived on fights are part of our game,“ said Sutton. ”If these hits and fights are really part of the game than this is what you’re risking, you are risking lawsuits, you are risking your best players out with injuries.
“It has always been part of the NHL and they have elected to support it and keep it but now there is going to be some financial repercussions possibly.”
Editing by Frank Pingue