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.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Debating the Chara Incident”

  1. First, I can feel for Chara, being that I am a big guy. It is tough to play this game when you are bigger and stronger than all the other players on the ice because stuff like this incident will happen from time to time. TRUST ME HE FEELS BAD. There was no intent to injury Pacioretty, Chara was just doing what he was taught which is to FINISH YOUR CHECK. Was the hit a little late?? Yes, but that happens all the time in hockey. It just happened on a bad part of the ice. Don’t get me wrong I think there has been a problem with controlling players and there hits to the head. Take for instance, all of Trevor Gillies hits this year have been out of line. That is a player that needs to be kick out of hockey because there is no place for that in the NHL. I think the NHL is getting control and making the right changes to keep players safe. It is just hard to implement rules at the end of the season. I bet there are going to be a lot of changes to the NHL when next season starts. So all you weary fans of the NHL because of the violence, I am begging you, STAY WITH US!! It will get better. This game is tooooo much fun to throw away.

  2. As far as Don Cherry ” THe Old Drag Queen of Hockey ” goes he should have been turfed long ago. Can’t talk or complain about his “Bruins”. instead of slanted glass why not put a 2′ no hit zone in that area , maybe painted blue or two red lines like the area around the nets have, Just a thought. PS: Chara knew where he was you don’t play for 13 years in the NHL and not know where you are on the ice at all times , Dirty hit, Dirty hit. as far as there not being any history between chara and max as some have posted just watch some replays from the last three games these teams have played.

  3. Everyone overreacts to devastating hits these days. Maybe Chara did have some intent but it’s next to impossible to prove it. Ever hear of innocent until proven guilty? I would hope that he didn’t, and I can’t read his mind so I don’t and will not ever know for sure. And there was no clear history between the two. I’m very very sorry that Pacioretty was hurt the way he was, and I hope he can return. However, the fault here lies with the NHL for poor infrastructure design. Why does that “between the benches” spot exist? I can’t think of what benefits the NHL having broadcasters in that area has for the game. I can’t think of 1 of them that are entertaining and they should be up in the press box like everyone else. Remove the glass panes and change the design of what separates the benches. You can’t cry and want guys suspended for the rest of their careers every time something happens i.e. Mario Lemieux last month. As far as Bertuzzi, let’s not forget was Steve Moore did to Naslund before the hit. He wasn’t a saint. Bertuzzi was trying to do his job and just went overboard, and he paid his dues for 2 years having to sit around and think about it. Bottom line here is the NHL is responsible. If Chara was, we’ll never know, so let’s stop being accusatory and the NHL needs to STEP UP their game.

  4. For the NHL to say yea we are working on it is just wrong. It is obviously not a money or a design issue. Even a temporary pad would help.

    As far as Charra is concerned he knew all to well where he was and what he was doing. Does it really matter if he ment to cause harm or not? I believe the rules state a player is responsible for his stick at all times; I guess hitting doesn’ t count.

  5. Bottom line for me.

    NHL has to put stern incentives on players to force them to think about when to hit, when not to hit.

    This isn’t about “a hockey play” or a team. This is about some players who’ve been seriously injured.

    And my appetite for watching more of this continue has worn pretty thin.

  6. Indefinite suspension for incompetent conduct to the NHL for not having dealt with the turnbuckle-jutting-glass issue ….. yet. Duh – losing!!!! Plenty of out of work engineers these days – wouldn’t be too hard to design some tapered recessed, injection molded piece that would insure maximum safety to fan & player alike.

    Now to the hit. Chara clearly looks up at the turnbuckle, then back at Pacioretty, then directs-drives him into this dangerous apparatus. He did not mean to cause the damage he did, however he did mean to ride/direct/push him into that general region. There was history, there may have been some lingering animosity, & given the replay as evidence – Chara knew what was (vaguely) about to transpire .

    Was Chara ‘opportunistic’ in his spur of the moment actions? I’m inclined to believe so.

    A suspension to Chara – given the history between the two players, two teams, & the condition of Pacioretty & NHL arena design flaws coupled with the increased speed of the game? That’s a tough one ………………………………………….. …..

    Update: Max Pacioretty has a severe concussion & broken verterbrae. He may well never play professional hockey again. A suspension is warranted regardless of the general consensus on degree of intent. More importantly, a technical review/symposium on the glass/board designs in all NHL/professional arenas should be organized ASAP.

    • Derek – thanks for articulating the thoughts that many of us share (certainly myself) – thanks for taking the time…well said.

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