TORONTO (Reuters) - The National Hockey League was under attack from all sides on Thursday as fans, sponsors and politicians expressed outrage at the rising levels of violence in the sport, following a devastating hit on Montreal Canadiens’ forward Max Pacioretty.
The romantic image of children playing hockey on a pond that appears on Canada’s five-dollar bill was replaced by disturbing pictures of Pacioretty lying unconscious on the ice on Tuesday after having his head violently slammed into partition at the end of the players’ bench by the Boston Bruins’ hulking 6-foot, 9-inch, 260-pound defenseman Zdeno Chara.
As a sellout crowd at Montreal’s Bell Center watched in stunned silence, Pacioretty was carefully loaded onto a stretcher and rushed to a Montreal hospital where he remains with a fractured vertebrae and severe concussion.
Despite being assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct, Chara escaped further punishment for his role in the gruesome collision, sparking a firestorm of anger that has been building for months following a string of on ice fights, and ugly hits that have sidelined some of the NHL’s biggest names, including Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby.
That outrage could even be heard in Canada’s House of Commons on Wednesday, as politicians from all parties voiced concerns about the escalating violence.
The Conservative government stopped short of saying it would intervene if the NHL did not clean up its act but Minister of State for Sport Gary Lunn called the hit “unacceptable” adding: “We would do everything to ensure that NHL does not allow this kind of action to continue.”
Unless the NHL acts quickly, it could also find the league’s finances taking a hit. Air Canada, one of the NHL’s major backers, has threatened to withdraw its sponsorship if the league does not take serious action on hits to the head.
Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick confirmed to Reuters that director of marketing and communications, Denis Vandal, had sent a letter to all six of Canada’s NHL clubs making it clear the airline expects the league to take action or risk losing it as a financial partner.
“We are contacting you (Wednesday) to voice our concern over (Tuesday night‘s) incident involving Max Pacioretty and Zdeno Chara at the Bell Center in Montreal,” wrote Vandal, in a letter printed in the Ottawa Sun. “This is following several other incidents involving career-threatening and life-threatening headshots in the NHL recently.”
He continued: ”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.
“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.”
The NHL was also staring at the possibility of courtroom battle on Thursday after Quebec’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions requested a police investigation into the Pacioretty incident.
While the NHL ruled the hit just another hockey play, incensed fans have seen it as something much more calculated and sinister, venting their anger through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
In the United States, where hockey is rarely water cooler talk of the day, replays of the violent hit were replayed repeatedly and debated on sports television and radio.
Even before the Pacioretty incident, the NHL was under increasing pressure to do something about hits to the head and the issue of concussions that have robbed the league and fans of some of their most popular and talented players.
Not seen on the ice since absorbing two cranium-rattling hits in early January, Crosby’s continued absence has reignited the debate, which has stubbornly refused to be pushed from the spotlight despite compelling playoff races in both the Western and Eastern Conferences.
”The NHL does track, monitor and pay attention to public reaction,“ Neal Pilson, head of Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports told Reuters. ”At some point the league has to assess whether changes will affect the competitiveness and entertainment value of the sport.
“I would pay attention to what is going on.”
Editing by Rob Wilson