Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Pacioretty Hit: A deeper look

By now you’ve already seen the images. With 15 seconds to go in the Montreal Canadiens’ 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins, Max Pacioretty, one of the league’s most promising youngsters, lay motionless on the ice, dropped there after hitting his head against the partition that divides the benches. He wound up there after Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, beaten by the speedy Canadiens forward, nailed Pacioretty into the bench and rid him along the edge, where Pacioretty’s head would eventually strike the partition.

Since the game, the debate on the hit has raged on. One side of the debate, which the National Hockey League is on, saw the hit as a “hockey play” that had an unfortunate conclusion. The other side suggests that Chara knew what he was doing and guided Pacioretty’s head into the partition. Unfortunately, the raw video doesn’t make the distinction any easier, and the only one who could answer to the maliciousness of the hit is Chara himself, who hasn’t been all that forthcoming. Chara denied culpability, claiming he wasn’t trying to hurt Pacioretty and that Pacioretty “jumped”.

On Tuesday, Pacioretty spoke up and fired back, asserting to TSN’s Bob McKenzie that Chara knew exactly what he was doing and should have received a suspension. From McKenzie:

“I am upset and disgusted that the league didn't think enough of (the hit) to suspend him. 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.

...

I heard (Chara) said he didn't mean to do it. I felt he did mean to do it. I would feel better if he said he made a mistake and that he was sorry for doing that, I could forgive that, but I guess he's talking about how I jumped up or something.

I believe he was trying to guide my head into the turnbuckle. We all know where the turnbuckle is. It wasn't a head shot like a lot of head shots we see but I do feel he targeted my head into the turnbuckle.”

(source: TSN.ca)

It’s a pretty incendiary statement in of itself, and the fact that Pacioretty decided to word the statement with strong language speaks to the gravity of the hit. It’s rare that a player speaks that candidly about something that happened to them, suggesting that this very much *is* something more than “just another hockey hit”.

A deeper look

As with any controversial subject, it’s imperative to examine it on a deeper level, without it one could be missing key insight that would allow them to understand the issue properly.

“The hockey play argument”

This argument starts with the fact that the hit on Pacioretty isn’t all that uncommon in the NHL- Chara isn’t the first player to run an opponent into the bench and he won’t be the last- this time the circumstances were different because of poor luck and poor physics (Chara’s large frame versus Pacioretty’s small stature). The optics- in real time speed- suggest this was merely “a hockey play” that went horribly wrong, much like Torrey Mitchell’s ill-fated trip a few seasons ago that sent Kurtis Foster into the boards and shattered Foster’s leg.

The next part deals with Chara’s character. Despite being the NHL’s tallest and heaviest player; as well as one of the league’s most physical players, this is the first time in Chara’s career that he has been involved in a high profile controversial hit. We all know about his clean disciplinary record, but it’s more astonishing that he’s been able to maintain a “clean” reputation. Certainly from a “character” standpoint, there’s no reason to suggest that Chara meant to be dirty on the play. Granted, it still doesn’t mean that Chara wasn’t malicious on the play- we all “behave differently” if certain situations arise- but the truth still remains that there hasn’t been a reason to call Chara “dirty” until now.

Thirdly is the fact that Chara was still punished on the play. This wasn’t a case where Chara went away from the incident without a penalty or with a piddly interference call- Chara was dinged with a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct (a misconduct that wasn’t rescinded, meaning Chara needs just two more for an automatic suspension). The league noted this in their decision not to add any supplemental discipline to the play. The NHL also set a precedent of sorts years prior when Alexander Ovechkin avoided a suspension when he drilled Daniel Briere from behind into the Buffalo Sabres’ bench door, though Briere avoided injury and Ovie did receive a fine.

Lastly is the fact that with incidents like this, there is a tendency for overanalysis. Critical thinkers and teachers of logic are apt to discuss the natural human tendency to “see what it wants” and, if one looks at something long enough, they will find “what they’re looking for”. For example, many astronomers in the late 19th to early 20th centuries were convinced that Mars had canals, and many of the day’s brightest minds contorted the truth (and their vision) just to see them. It’s a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”, and it’s well in play here.

Since the hit, there have been various different still images and replays of the video where the creator asserts is “irrefutable” evidence of Chara driving Pacioretty’s head into the stanchion. The most damning of them was a picture (you can see it on Yahoo! Sports) of Chara’s hand punching Pacioretty into the stanchion, ostensibly showing Chara’s “real” intent. However, one needs to remember that a still image is different than seeing the play in full, and in full time, it appears that Chara is simply using his forearm to drive Pacioretty into the bench and steady himself at the same time. It is a penalty still (elbowing) but certainly not irrefutable evidence that Chara deliberately directed Pacioretty’s head with his hand into the turnbuckle.

“The dirty hit argument”

This one starts with the story that Pacioretty and Chara have a bit of a personal “rivalry”. Players with personal rivalries is nothing new for hockey or for even sports in general, though it does seem odd that the tiny Pacioretty put his sights on the monstrous Chara. Nevertheless, there is a case to suggest bad blood existed the between the two players well before Chara threw Pacioretty into the boards.

On January 8 in Montreal, Pacioretty used Chara as a screen to score the overtime winner. As Pacioretty skated to celebrate with his jubilant teammates, he lightly shoved Chara out of the way. Though it was obviously innocent, Chara took exception to the push and started a scrum with Pacioretty. The next game between Montreal and Boston was the 8-6 slugfest (in more ways than one) that became this season’s most talked about game. Whether or not the seeds of a Pacioretty-Chara rivalry came out as a result of the January 8 contest is an open question, but it was clear that game planted the seeds to what has become hockey’s nastiest rivalry this season.

Pacioretty certainly believed Chara knew what he was doing, although his memory of the play is fuzzy. Chara, for his part, claims he didn’t realize it was Pacioretty that he had hit on the play, but he was looking right at him in the lead up to the hit. Furthermore, considering that Pacioretty is far from a new player, having been in the league for three seasons and at least over a dozen games against Boston, Chara can’t claim he didn’t recognize Pacioretty. Even if we dismiss the possibility that Chara and Pacioretty didn’t have a deep-seated hatred for each other, the fact still remains the hit could very much be a “revenge” play for Pacioretty’s shove, since revenge is very much a part of hockey culture.

Other NHL players also dispute the idea that Chara didn’t know what he was doing. Vancouver Canuck Tanner Glass said “if you polled 700 NHL players, 680 of them would say they know where the turnbuckle is.” Buffalo Sabres defenceman Steve Montador, a former Bruin, concurred. Pacioretty’s teammate Canadiens forward Scott Gomez added that from “Day One you’re taught not to do that.” Finally, Rob Ray not only corroborated that Chara knew where the stanchion is, he also opined that Chara would deliberately drive Pacioretty into it, stating that other players would do the same thing. Now, I’ve seen many games at the Bell Centre and it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone get driven into the stanchion, but the testimony of the players casts doubt on the idea that Chara didn’t know what he was doing.

Conclusions

In simple terms, this is a hit that has been made to be greater than it should have been. Yes, Pacioretty was hurt so badly that he may never play hockey again, let alone have a normal life. However, it’s not a reason to call Chara a “monster” just for performing an act that occurs with some frequency- players get injured all the time, and while it’s important to know how to curb those injuries, let’s remember to keep this in perspective.

Technically, the league was right in its assessment. Chara didn’t hit Pacioretty from behind, it wasn’t a charge and it wasn’t the first time a player was ridden along the bench (or, as Don Cherry pointed out, ridden into a stanchion) and it won’t be the last. Still, it just may be time to make such a play illegal, given the play shed light on just how dangerous it could be.

I’m not suggesting that the NHL should make checking into the boards illegal or even checking a player into the bench- board play itself didn’t injure Pacioretty, that specific board play injured Pacioretty; and now it’s time for the rulebook to catch up. The benches have been a hazard on the ice for years and it’s surprising that we haven’t had a Pacioretty incident before.

All that’s needed now is a penalty against excessive play along the benches. There’s no reason for Chara to be allowed to drive Pacioretty’s body against the bench after the initial impact, so anything other than a “direct hit” should be penalized. Players could still be driven along the boards because they’re different- they’re tall enough to provide “support” to the player receiving the hit, whereas along the benches their bodies could be contorted in ways they shouldn’t be.

It should also be time to have a look at the stanchions themselves. It’s been pointed out that padding of the stanchions between the benches in Montreal are too thin, so that is one area to address. The other part deals with the design- why does the glass at the end of the bench have to extend all the way to the ice? There are no fans in between the benches, just a pointless broadcaster, and they already have a door at the end of the bench. Sure, there’d have to be glass at the end of the “second level” of the bench (where the coaches stand) to ensure no fans get to the bench and so the coaches are protected against “falls” but the players need no such protection, so there’s no reason to have the glass- and by extension, the stanchion- all the way to the ice.

So in short, the Chara hit was both a dirty play and a clean play- legal by the letter of the law but dirty in that it showed just how dangerous that type of hit can be. It also showed that the discussion shouldn’t be about how hard the league should have come down on Chara but about the larger issue about the dangers of the play along the benches and why those stanchions are where they are. Solving those problems would go a longer way than any suspension to Chara would, because then those problems would still need addressing.

Last but not least, let’s hope we see Pacioretty on the ice again. There may be differences in opinion about what should have been done about the hit, but if there is anything we can all agree on, it’s Pacioretty’s health.

Get well soon Max.

-DG


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-DG

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