Debating the Chara Incident

Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent

Whenever an incident occurs that gets the tongues of NHL pundits wagging, one of the words that gets repeated over and over again is the word “intent.” The phrase “intent to injure” is a popular one in those circles, and it is often the determining factor in people’s minds when debating whether or not a particular play is worthy of a suspension.

In some cases, such as the Trevor Gillies hit on Cal Clutterbuck or the Matt Cooke hit on Fedor Tyutin, the intent of the player involved is blatantly clear: exact a terrible physical toll on the poor sucker you are hitting, and if he gets injured, it’s no skin off my back. In the incident on Tuesday night involving Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty, that question of intent came to the forefront yet again.

The one emotion that everyone who watches the above video feels is one of sheer sickness, not necessarily because of how Chara hit Max, but simply the emotion of seeing a player down on the ice like that. Reports are coming out today that not only did Pacioretty suffer a severe concussion on the play, but he also sustained some type of a neck injury, possibly a fracture. That is absolutely terrible news, and above all else in this situation, his well-being is of paramount importance here.

Trying to divorce the sickening visual of Pacioretty struggling to gain his bearings from a discussion about the hit itself is a difficult proposition, and given the NHL’s penchant for legislating based on injury it probably would be a fruitless endeavor anyway. All (deserved) potshots at the league aside, the reality is that it isn’t hard to work oneself into a foaming fit of rage when looking at this video. The images of a player with a serious neck injury lend themselves well to an emotional overreaction, and so the league needs to do its fans a service by trying to look at this play with reason as the biggest factor.

Reaction across the web to this play has varied widely, with some folks (including THW’s own Iain Carnegie in thisthoughtful piece on the subject) arguing for a lengthy suspension for the play, and others in the media who have been downright dismissive of the notion that this hit was suspension-worthy. The holders of this belief have used phrases like “if it happened anywhere else on the ice, we wouldn’t be talking about it,” and while that may be true, they are missing the biggest factor in all of this: what the heck was Chara thinking?

There are two main components that need to be debated with this hit. The first of these would be the intent angle: did Chara intend to injure Pacioretty? Did he intend to just “rub him out” and the fact that it ended up happening with disastrous consequences was just an unfortunate accident?

Zdeno Chara incident
Zdeno Chara

The other issue at play is whether or not the league feels comfortable in ruling against a player who may have just been exhibiting a lack of common sense, with obviously disastrous consequences. If Chara didn’t really intend to injure Max, can the league still punish him for not knowing (or not caring) about where he was on the ice?

The answer to the first question is unfortunately very difficult to determine. It is really easy to make the argument that Zdeno deliberately rode Pacioretty into the turnbuckle in a calculated attempt to injure him, but the reality of the situation is that it happened so fast in game action that Chara more than likely wasn’t thinking that way.

The bigger issue here is differentiating between the “he didn’t mean to do it” and the “he didn’t intend to injure Max” viewpoints. A lot of folks have been assailing the first argument as a cop-out, using examples like a criminal injuring an innocent motorist while fleeing from police and the like. Once again, it is easy to generate anger about this topic, and the notion of Chara’s defenders using the “he meant to hit him, but not to injure him” simply won’t sit right with those folks. The real phrasing that needs to be used here is that Chara PROBABLY did not intend to injure Pacioretty on the play. It’s hard to determine whether there was any maliciousness involved, and even though these two players have a bit of a history with one another, it cannot be argued conclusively (like in the Cooke and Gillies cases) that Zdeno deliberately set out to hurt Max on the play.

The other issue of common sense is where the league really needs to draw a line in the sand. All season long, the league has been faced with issues of its players using incredibly poor judgment, and this situation represents yet another incident to add to that list. Some will dismiss this component by using the “if it happened anywhere else” argument, but that is the completely wrong view to take. The reality of this play is that it did not take place anywhere else on the ice, and so it has to be evaluated in the context of where it took place.

The argument that Chara didn’t know where he was on the ice simply doesn’t hold water in this situation. Chara knew that he was along the half-boards, and the stanchions between the player benches aren’t exactly a feature that is unique to Montreal. Plenty of rinks around the league have this bordering between the benches, and while Chara may not have been on his “home rink,” there is no way that he was blissfully unaware of his surroundings. If it’s a matter of him simply forgetting where he was on the ice, then that needs to be punished as well, because ignorance is not an excuse to do something that is plainly unsafe.

Max Pacioretty
Max Pacioretty (image property of BridgetDS)

Since the intent on the play is difficult to judge, and because the common sense argument is one again in the fold, the league should only suspend Chara for two games. A lot of people are saying that he shouldn’t be suspended at all, but that sends the wrong message about the play. Yes, there may not have been any maliciousness behind what Chara did, but he should have known where he was on the ice at the time of the collision. Obviously if he did know and still chose to do what he did that’s a strike against him in the “intended to injure” column, but the league cannot determine that conclusively in this situation.

A two game suspension would reinforce the notion that the league is looking carefully at these hits, and would still demonstrate that they care about player safety. Even though it can be argued that the intent wasn’t there, the common sense conclusion that Chara needs to be more aware of where he is on the ice is grounds enough for a punishment of this length.

Hits like these will always bring out the people on the fringe with an ax to grind (see Adam Proteau’s comment that “the real villain is the NHL’s culture of reckless behavior”), but while passion among fans and pundits is appropriate, the league has to set that aside and focus on the real meat of the issue. Chara may be a hulking force who can deliver a bone-crunching hit just as easily as he can deploy his wicked slapshot, but to characterize him as a dirty player, as some have done, is a misrepresentation of his style of play.

Even with that lack of history in mind, the league still needs to do the right thing and have Zdeno sit out a couple of games. In this rarest of situations where the middle ground is the smartest way to go for this league, it’ll be interesting to see whether they let this go unpunished, or they overreact and hit Chara hard.