Where to begin with the latest bout of ugliness in the NHL?
Last night, with the Montreal Canadiens holding a 4-0 lead over the Boston Bruins and 15.8 seconds left in the second period, Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara took Max Pacioretty hard into the glass separating the two player benches.
Pushed by a Chara forearm, Pacioretty's head made contact with the metal beam holding up the glass and he went down in a heap, motionless and unconscious.
Referee Bill McCreary, who has seen more hockey than most people, called a five-minute penalty for interference plus 10 and a game misconduct, tossing Chara from the match.
Here is a clip of the play so you can see what happened for yourself.
So now what?
Well, two things are certain: Pacioretty will be out for at least one week, and Chara will have a disciplinary hearing with the league.
Pacioretty being out for a week is an automatic NHL rule any time a player loses consciousness on the ice. Ditto for the Chara meeting with the NHL offices, as that's an automatic when a player gets a match penalty.
But how will the league respond?
To answer that, we have to look at the facts of this case and the NHL's history with suspensions.
Chara and Pacioretty have a history together going back to the Canadiens' 3-2 overtime victory over the Bruins in early January. After scoring the game-winning overtime goal, Pacioretty, clearly pumped, gave Chara a shove before skating off to celebrate with his teammates.
Needless to say, Chara didn't take too kindly to the shove, as you can see in this video.
Since the incident, Pacioretty has been a target for the Bruins.
In the subsequent meeting between the two teams, now dubbed the Beatdown in Beantown, Pacioretty, along with P.K. Subban, was targeted all night by the Bruins.
So when you see Chara pushing Pacioretty into the stanchion, you have to be aware of the history between these two players.
Now, despite what many Habs fans are saying this morning, Chara is not known to be a dirty player. His hit was clearly interference on a player who had a step on him and was skating past him without the puck, but the thing that bothers me the most is the forearm shove from Chara at the last second.
Chara claims that he didn't know where they were on the ice, and that is a distinct possibility, but should he not have to take responsibility for his actions regardless?
That extra shove is what propelled Pacioretty head first into the metal post, knocking him unconscious.
Chara and the Bruins were clearly frustrated by the Habs' dominance of the game and their inability to get anything going offensively. Moreover, the Bruins clearly thought they could come out and intimidate Montreal again, but the Habs put their heads down, ignored the goonery and focused on playing hockey.
This just added to the B's frustration.
By the time Chara rubbed out Pacioretty, the game was clearly out of reach for the Bruins, and they were trying to get things going physically, exact some retribution and "send a message."
So in short, in the dying seconds of the second period, with the Bruins down by four, frustrated and with the game clearly out of reach, Chara went after Pacioretty, a player whom he already has a history of aggression towards.
That paints a pretty bad picture for Mr. Chara, regardless of him not being a repeat offender.
Can you argue any of that? I think not.
You can argue intent and whether Chara meant to hurt Pacioretty, but you cannot argue that there were a whole boatload of mitigating factors that make the Chara hit that much uglier.
As much as Chara doesn't have a reputation as a dirty player, he is known as a player who can lose his cool. He is a player that can be gotten to and who can lose his cool when his team is being beaten handily, as it was last night.
Don't believe me? Just ask Steve Begin.
What Will the League Do?
So once again, the ugly topic of hits to the head shows its face and is the main reason for coast-to-coast coverage of the NHL in the United States this morning.
But how will the league react?
There is a lot of evidence that would lend credence to a Chara suspension, and a lengthy one at that. So why do I get the feeling that he'll get off lightly?
Last week, Islanders player Trevor Gillies was suspended for a blind-side hit on the Wild's Cal Clutterbuck.
I honestly don't see what the big deal is with this hit except that it came from the blind side; aside from that, this looks like a shoulder-to-shoulder hit to me.
Nevertheless, the big, tough NHL disciplinary office handed Gillies a 10-game suspension.
Wow, good for you NHL. You take a player who plays five minutes per game and throw the book at him for a borderline hit? Way to send a message.
Now I think it is fair to say that the Chara hit was much worse than the Gillies hit. So does that mean that the NHL will suspend Chara for 20 games?
The league has a chance to truly send a message, and if it wants to stop head shots and concussions, it needs to make an example of Chara.
Chara is a star, elite-level defenseman in the league and is the captain of the Bruins. Suspending him for 10 or more games would be how you send a message, not by suspending a marginal fourth liner like Gillies.
However, knowing the NHL's unwillingness to make a stand and firmly punish star players, I think it is highly unlikely that Chara will miss anything more than two or three games.
If the NHL wanted to get it right, it would make sure that Chara was not in the lineup when these two teams have a rematch in a few weeks (March 24).
But again, given the league's track record, I just don't see it happening.
Time for an Independent Committee
With the league struggling to hand out the right punishment and clearly employing a two-tier justice system—one for the stars and one for everyone else—it is time for their discipline department to be outsourced.
Colin Campbell, Bill Daly and the other NHL executives are too close to the game, the owners, the managers, the agents and the like to be able to make proper, unbiased decisions on suspensions.
As such, their rulings tend to be uneven and often do not fit the crime.
Thus, as many around the league have been saying for some time now, I believe it is time for the NHL to put in place an independent, third-party committee whose job it is to hand out suspensions.
Populate the committee with people who have no association with the NHL, show them the rules and let them decide the severity of the penalties and suspensions handed out without having to worry about upsetting their "buddies" around the league.
Until that happens, Campbell and his cronies will continue to get it wrong, and at some point if they don't figure it out, a player will get knocked down by a dirty hit and won't ever get up again.
The league needs to take action before and not after that happens, and the fact that it hasn't done so thus far speaks to woeful negligence.