Hockey hit spurs police probe, sponsorship threat

In this photo taken, Tuesday, March 8, 2011, Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty is wheeled away on a stretcher after taking a hit from Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara during second period NHL hockey action in Montreal.
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson

QUEBEC CITY - Montreal police started a criminal investigation Thursday into the on-ice hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara that left the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty with a severe concussion and cracked vertebra.

Police said they are acting on a request by Quebec's director of criminal and penal prosecutions, Louis Dionne. Police added that after evidence is collected, it will then be determined if there are grounds for prosecution.

Chara took part in the Bruins' morning skate on Thursday. He did not speak at length on the investigation, but did acknowledge it.

"I got some media information on that this morning," he said. "But like I said, right now, I'm focusing on playing my game, and playing hockey."

Photos: Concussions in sports

The NHL said a day earlier it would not suspend Chara for Tuesday night's hit, when he slammed Pacioretty into a glass partition.

Pacioretty said he was "disgusted" that Chara escaped a fine or suspension.

"I am upset and disgusted that the league didn't think enough of (the hit) to suspend him," Pacioretty told told TSN's Bob McKenzie. "I'm not mad for myself, I'm mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it's okay, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt."

As the Bruins prepared for Thursday's game vs. Buffalo, it was still the hot topic.

"I'm not going to comment too much on that because no matter what your answer, there's always going be two sides to that. We're supportive of our player. We know he didn't do it on purpose. It wasn't intentional. I said that yesterday," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "But at the same time, I understand their frustration at the other end because we've been on the other side of the coin, and it's normal to be frustrated and I understand them as well. And that's basically my thoughts on that."

This cloud now hovers over the Bruins as they try to snap a two-game losing streak.

"There's still things hanging over our heads right now. It doesn't seem to want to disappear. And those are situations that are unfortunate, and they're not easy to deal with for anybody, whether it's the organization, the players and everybody involved here," Julien said. "It's not an easy situation because we understand that there's a player that's injured at the other end. As I mentioned earlier, we've had that happen to us. It goes past the game itself. We're talking about individuals. We don't wish that on anybody. And that kind of stuff doesn't disappear overnight."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday joined in. Speaking after a U.S. congressional panel discussion in Washington about encouraging American kids to play hockey, Bettman said Pacioretty's injury is horrific, but it's part of the game. He also said most concussions and head injuries this year have been from accidents or players falling — rather than as the result of hits.

There, indeed, has been strong debate this season over injuries from hits to the head. Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby is among those sidelined with such an injury.

In a related matter, Air Canada has told the NHL it is considering withdrawing its sponsorship unless the league tightens rules to reduce potentially serious injuries.

Dionne filed his request for an investigation after watching television footage of Chara's hit, his spokeswoman said.

"The police investigation will be held. Like all police investigations, evidence will be gathered and an investigation report will be submitted, spokeswoman Martine Berube said. "(The DCPP) will then evaluate to see whether there's grounds for prosecution."

Asked what kind of punishment could be assessed in a case like Chara's, she replied: "It's too early to say. That would depend on what charges are laid. That's a little difficult to predict at this point."

Pacioretty, a left wing from Connecticut, is a regular top-line player for Montreal. With he and Chara racing for the puck near the player benches, Chara checked Pacioretty into the boards, sending him slamming into a stanchion supporting the glass.

The hit drew criticism from Gary Lunn, the minister of state for sports, and others outside the league. Lunn called it unacceptable.

But the league deemed it "a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface."

Pacioretty has not forgiven Chara.

"I understand, he's in the hospital, he has a right to be emotional and I respect that," Chara said. "I obviously feel bad that he got hurt. As a hockey player, we all feel bad that something like that happened — doesn't matter if you're the home team or the visiting team. I'm wishing him a fast recovery and hopefully he can be back on the ice soon and that's all we love to do. We love to play hockey. Obviously when we go out there, we take risks. And sometimes, we do get hurt. But, it's just very unfortunate."

Several legal and former law-enforcement experts expressed doubt a police investigation would result in criminal charges.

"This would be the type of case that would be very tough to prosecute," former major crimes investigator with Quebec's provincial police John Galianos said.

He added that the difficulty facing prosecutors would be establishing Chara's intent to injure.

"I don't think a Crown attorney would prosecute based on the video," he said.

Montreal lawyer Steven Slimovitch said: "When you get involved in a sport, there is a concept of acceptance of risk. The question is did Pacioretty agree to be hit in that kind of fashion by Zdeno Chara? Was the hit so outside the norm of what is found in the sport of hockey . . . that it's not hockey anymore."