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A Painful Lesson

A scary hit in Montreal is the latest evidence of a safety crisis in the game. So what's the NHL waiting for?

The NHL has taken steps to clamp down on violence and head injuries, but the league's decision not to suspend Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara for his hit on the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty on March 8 is both misguided and dangerous.

With Boston trailing 4--0 near the end of the second period, the 6'9" Chara rode the 6'2" Pacioretty into the boards along the Bruins' bench, causing his head to hit a padded stanchion at the end of the bench. Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a nondisplaced fracture of the fourth vertebra. Though he was not paralyzed, his return to hockey is uncertain. Chara, who says he didn't mean to push Pacioretty into the post, received a game misconduct and a rare five-minute major for interference. The next day NHL senior VP of hockey operations Mike Murphy called the hit "a hockey play" and refused to impose supplemental discipline because he said he could find no evidence "to suggest that ... Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous." He also cited the fact that Chara had never before been involved in a supplemental discipline incident during his 13-year career. A good point, but what's a clean record worth in a game that doesn't adequately police itself?

A chorus of critics condemned the decision, including stars Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton. "You have to suspend guys if you hit the head," Sedin told The Vancouver Sun. "You have to do it even if guys say they didn't mean to do it or it's an accident. You have to start somewhere. I don't think players know where the limit is."

As Pacioretty later told TSN, "If other players see a hit like that and think they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt."

He's got a point, not that it seemed to matter to the NHL. Two league sponsors also spoke up to protest Chara's nonsuspension, including Air Canada. But commissioner Gary Bettman responded by saying the airline was free to reconsider its involvement with the league, just as clubs were free to consider other travel options.

Bettman's sneering remarks seem indicative of an amazingly tin ear. The NHL's top star, Sidney Crosby, has been out with concussion symptoms since Jan. 5. The Bruins' Marc Savard—whose concussion last year spurred the league in the off-season to its laudable adoption of Rule 48, designed to punish blindside hits to the head—is now done for the season after suffering another concussion. A recent study on the brain of former enforcer Bob Probert, who died last July, determined he suffered from a degenerative brain disease.

Ingraining reflexive restraint on players who are getting bigger and faster will demand a deterrent punishment for any action deemed to endanger the head, whether the league sees intent or not. If the NHL felt it had no rule that justified a suspension for Chara, then it needs to come up with one. It needs a rule with something often missing at NHL games: a full set of teeth.

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BODY COUNT Pacioretty's concussion invited a criminal investigation but only a tepid response from the league.