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Keefe To The City: NHL Needs Discipline

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This image from Tuesday, March 8, 2011 shows Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty hitting his head on the glass partition between the benches on a hard check from Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara (33) during second  period NHL hockey action in Montreal. A Quebec prosecutor wants police to investigate the hit by Chara that sent Pacioretty to the hospital with a fractured vertebra and severe concussion. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

This image from Tuesday, March 8, 2011 shows Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty hitting his head on the glass partition between the benches on a hard check from Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara (33) during second period NHL hockey action in Montreal. A Quebec prosecutor wants police to investigate the hit by Chara that sent Pacioretty to the hospital with a fractured vertebra and severe concussion. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

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By Neil Keefe
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The Rangers rewarded the fans that stayed up to watch their 10:30 p.m. game in Anaheim with a crushing 5-2 loss that ruined the losses of the Sabres, Maple Leafs and Devils from Tuesday night. But earlier in the night, Carmelo Anthony let Knicks fans breathe easy after the team almost blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. So, at least there was that.

But the story that will overshadow those two in the New York sports media landscape for the rest of the week, or at least until Michael Strahan tries to top Tiki Barber by also turning in the paperwork to the NFL to play again in 2011, will be the ending to the St. John’s-Rutgers game in the Big East Tournament.

The Big East has acknowledged through a statement that their officials made a mistake at the end of the game and the league has done its best to apologize for the mistake. Now that isn’t going to give Rutgers the ball with 1.7 seconds left and a chance to move on in the Big East Tournament, but it will have to do. While it was odd seeing the refs walk off the court while ESPN kept playing back the final seconds of the game, it happened so fast that it was understandable that the officials in the game could missing something with 1.7 seconds left. And even if Rutgers were given the ball with 1.7 seconds left, they would still need to hit a shot to tie or win the game, so, let’s not act like they the game was stolen from them.

But the real talk in the sports world should focus around the NHL, its disciplinary department, and its reaction to Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty from Tuesday night. The league had ample time to review the hit, get stories and reaction from both sides, but the result was almost identical to the Big East Tournament which had to make a decision in real-time: a statement from the league saying they couldn’t do anything about it.

This isn’t about Zdeno Chara or Max Pacioretty or the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens. It’s about the NHL — a league that leaves itself open to more criticism and questions about its decision making than Joe Girardi does. It’s about a league that continues to use a cootie catcher to decide on suspensions and fines, and a league that would rather have people talking negatively about it for weeks rather than debate about its decision for a day.

Personally, I don’t care what the Boston Bruins do. I don’t care what the Montreal Canadiens do either. I enjoy watching the two teams play each other for the history and the rivalry between the players on the ice, and for the hatred and disgust between the team’s fans. It’s the one time Jack Edwards is tolerable to listen to because you can hear the hatred for the Canadiens in his voice. It’s hockey at its best.

When the teams met on Feb. 9 there were 14 goals and 187 penalty minutes. It was old-time hockey. The type of old-time hockey that the game needs every once in a while. The type of old-time hockey that makes non-hockey fans cringe, and the type that makes uptight mothers like Anita McCambridge forbid their children from watching the sport. But the sport doesn’t need those people to become fans. The sport needs Gary Bettman to stop trying to make those people fans. The sport needs him to focus on keeping the fans he already has rather than trying to make hockey popular in places where hockey fans go for vacation — in places where you can wear shorts year round.

It’s common ground right now that something is going to happen in a Bruins-Canadiens that is probably going to be “SportsCenter” worthy, and maybe even good enough for the show to lead with. You can expect a few tilts, some epic goals and if you’re lucky a line brawl. It comes with the territory of the rivalry. That’s why I watched the two teams play on Tuesday night. I expected something to happen. I just didn’t expect what happened to happen.

If you somehow haven’t seen Chara’s hit on Pacioretty, here it is.

Let’s get two facts about the incident out there:

1. Chara’s hit was illegal. You keep hearing that it was a clean hit and that if it happened anywhere else on the boards, Pacioretty would be fine. But that doesn’t make it legal. The last time I checked, when you hit someone without the puck it’s called “interference”. That’s why Chara was given a penalty for “interference”. He wasn’t given a penalty for “running someone into the partition”. The window for Chara to “finish his check” closed several strides before the end of the bench came into play. And there is the argument that Chara was finishing his check on a play that he always finishes his check. If that’s the case, then Chara is committing a lot of interference penalties and needs to be start being called for them.

2. There is a history between Chara and Pacioretty. Chara didn’t like that Pacioretty ran into him in the Jan. 8 game following Montreal’s goal in overtime to beat the Bruins. He tried to start a scrap with Pacioretty at the end of that game out of frustration. The next time the teams met, it was an old-fashioned gongshow. And the first time a line brawl broke out, and Chara and Pacioretty were on the ice, Chara tried to rip Pacioretty’s helmet off and feed him a few for “nudging” him at the end of their last meeting. So even though it was a unique play at a unique part of the rink, Andy Brickley can’t keep saying without a doubt that it wasn’t “pre-meditated”.

If I’m the league disciplinarian on this case and all I had was the video of the hit, the definition of interference from the NHL rulebook, the score sheet showing that my officials gave Chara a major penalty and game misconduct, that’s all I would need to make a decision. I wouldn’t need to know that Chara felt bad about his actions, or factor in that he doesn’t have a history of dirty play, or that Pacioretty is severely injured from the hit. None of that matters. What matters is that it was an illegal hit at a dangerous part of the rink that the on-ice officials thought was bad enough to assess a five-minute major for interference (that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that) and a game misconduct for interference (also another first).

But what did Mike Murphy, senior vice president of hockey operations, decide? Well, here’s his statement:

“After a thorough review of the video I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly — with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards. I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, 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.

“This was a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface. In reviewing this play, I also took into consideration that Chara has not been involved in a supplemental discipline incident during his 13-year NHL career.”

Murphy acknowledged that it was interference, so he’s not completely incompetent. But I’m not sure what type of “hockey play” allows one person to interfere with another person when they don’t have the puck. Unless “blocking” is now part of the game?

And how about the idea that Chara’s history of not being suspended had anything to do with this? Why do you need a track record to be disciplined by the league? Matt Cooke had a track record for a while and still wasn’t being disciplined correctly, so it’s not like this “track record” portion of the decision is something concrete. No one has a track record until they do something for the first time, so if I’m a player without a track record, I guess I don’t have to slam on the brakes before running someone from behind the next time I’m in a race on a touch-icing call. Translation: everyone in the league has one free pass to try and end another player’s career, and after that, the league MIGHT do something about it, but it’s not a definite.

The league chose to do nothing with Chara. No fine. No suspension. Just a phone call with Chara to tell him to try to not end anyone else’s career. (Actually I’m not sure the NHL even mentioned that on the phone). Murphy basically said that the call the refs made on the ice was incorrect because if the refs thought that someone deserved a MAJOR PENALTY and to be EJECTED from the game for INTERFERENCE, they must have seen it wrong. Instead of handing out a suspension that everyone would have understood (maybe not everyone would have agreed…cough, cough, Andy Brickley, cough, cough, Gord Kluzak, cough, cough), but everyone would have understood, the NHL has left the door open for this hit to be replayed over and over again, and a chance for everyone to rip the league until the next on-ice incident.

What’s the worst that happens if Chara is suspended? Players are more careful around the stanchions near the benches and respect the safety of the opposition. We wouldn’t want that. Sure, Boston and Montreal sports radio stations love that there wasn’t a suspension so they can debate about the decision for days, and the Boston media can run with this until Opening Day, and the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry has added another chapter, but it didn’t need to be that way.

I don’t think Chara should be suspended because Pacioretty is severely injured. I think he should be suspended whether or not Pacioretty is injured. Sometimes the NHL takes is worried too much about the result of the play and not the actual play. Look at high-sticking in the league. If you high-stick a player it’s a two-minute minor. But if there’s blood from the high-stick then it’s a four-minute double minor. I’m pretty confident that you can break a jaw or cheekbone or orbital socket and not have bleeding. Or you can get a scratch or cut that you could get shaving in your bathroom and get double the penalty for it. That’s logical, right?

Do I know what Chara was thinking when Pacioretty pushed the puck past him, gained position on Chara and tried to create an odd-man rush and scoring chance for the Canadiens? No. But I know enough that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Chara had bad intentions on his mind when he saw No. 67 trying to get around him. This wasn’t Brian Gionta or Scott Gomez or Tomas Plekanec. This was Max Pacioretty, who Chara had targeted the previous two times the Bruins and Canadiens met.

I don’t know if Chara wanted to injure Pacioretty on that play. No one does. But I know he tried to injure him at the end of the Jan. 8 game and during the Feb. 9 game. So, I can’t say the thought didn’t cross his mind when Pacioretty gained position on him heading out into the neutral zone.

I’ve never been known as a fan of Chara. So, to show that this isn’t the anti-Chara in me talking, I decided to ask three friends from the Boston sports media that cover the Bruins on a daily basis their opinion on the incident and the NHL’s decision to not suspend Chara.

Adam Jones, 98.5 The Sports Hub-CBS Radio Boston
Ultimately, I don’t believe Chara was trying to injure Pacioretty, but this notion that he didn’t know where he was on the ice is nonsense. After 12 years in the league, I find it hard to believe that he isn’t aware of his surroundings.

Despite his imposing size, his history is clean as whistle. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he nearly ended a promising career with a senseless hit. I find it stunning that he wasn’t suspended for multiple games. Then again, it’s the NHL we’re talking about, so maybe I shouldn’t be.

Mike Hurley, NESN.com
Chara should have been suspended for a game or two. Not because he’s evil and not because he wanted to break Pacioretty’s neck. He should have been suspended because he could have been more careful. That’s what it comes down to.

As it is now, with no suspension coming, there won’t be any hesitation from Chara or anyone else to unload on a player caught near the glass at the end of the boards. A two-game suspension would be enough to simply tell players to be more aware of their surroundings and to think twice before making such a hit.

But if Chara had been given a short suspension, the only precedent set would have been that players need to be more careful in dangerous situations. Don’t shove a guy headfirst into glass, or you might get punished. Is that such a bad standard to set?

Mike Miccoli, The Hockey Writers
Argue all you want, but it’ll be tough for everyone to agree on what the appropriate actions for handling Chara’s hit on Pacioretty should have been.

I thought Chara should have been suspended two or three games, at most. The suspension would serve as a reminder that these “types” of hits weren’t tolerated, even though Chara’s initial hit wasn’t dirty, it certainly wasn’t necessary to finish the check. An already erratic governing board for the league doesn’t help. The joke that the NHL has a “Wheel of Discipline” to determine suspensions does seem realistic since players have gotten a lot worse for matters that were to a lesser extent than this.

Essentially, the whole incident comes down to how you define a dirty hit — problem is, there’s not one true definition. I don’t believe that Chara intended to injury Pacioretty even though some may say he knew where the stanchion was located and how his impact would crush the Hab. After that, it all becomes subjective and with two rabid fan bases … good luck getting to the bottom of that one.

See, I’m not crazy. Bostonians are thinking the same way as me. And if Bostonians of all people can think rationally, then why can’t the NHL?

One guy will play against the Sabres on Thursday night. The other guy has a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture to the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck, and might not be allowed to ever play hockey again. It wasn’t a clean hit. Pacioretty wasn’t skating along the boards with the puck or skating with his head down in the open ice. He was skating after the puck with position on Chara and was interfered with.

The league had a chance to suspend Chara and make a statement. Now they have left it up to the Canadiens to try and serve justice themselves. Whatever happens when the teams meet on March 24 is the league’s fault. And something will happen.

Follow Neil on Twitter at twitter.com/NeilKeefe

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