x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A head-check is necessary in ice hockey

The game of ice hockey is once again turning introspective, trying to find that balance between speed and safety, physicality and legality, family entertainment and traumatic violence.

Max Pacioretty lies on the ice after being bodychecked by Zdeno Chara in Montreal. Richard Wolowicz / Getty Images
Max Pacioretty lies on the ice after being bodychecked by Zdeno Chara in Montreal. Richard Wolowicz / Getty Images

It was not a legal bodycheck. That much, we can say, with certainty. After that, well, it depends on how you like your ice hockey: hard-boiled or over-easy.

In case you missed it, here's what happened: Zdeno Chara, the Boston Bruins defenceman, was given a five-minute major for interference and a game misconduct for his devastating hit on Max Pacioretty, the Montreal winger.

As the two players chased a loose puck along the side boards in the neutral zone, the 6ft 2ins (1.88m) Pacioretty chipped the puck ahead, and a half-beat later the 6ft 9ins Chara push-checked the winger into the boards.

It's something we see, oh, about 80 times a game ... except, the hit occurred in front of the players' benches, where there's no glass. Correction: it happened in the spot where the glass starts, and the starting point is a metal stanchion; padded, yes, but it is still an immobile metal pole.

Running into it would be like running into, well, a metal pole. Collisions with the stanchions are not unprecedented; there's usually at least one every season.

But there's never been a hit into a stanchion like this one, nor one with more frightening results.

Pacioretty went down like he had been shot. After several scary minutes, he was carried off on a stretcher and taken to hospital.

The diagnosis: a severe concussion and fractured vertebra. He was released a couple days later, but not before the debate was re-ignited on ice hockey violence. Everyone had an opinion, but workable solutions remain less available.

As mentioned, Chara was penalised on the play, for interference, meaning he hit Pacioretty when he did not have possession of the puck. Because of the injury, the referee gave Chara the maximum, a major and a misconduct.

To the consternation of many, however, Chara was not suspended or even fined by the NHL. The league called it "a hockey play".

If the hit had not happened where it did, and if we could look inside Chara's brain and see whether he "guided" Pacioretty into the stanchion - as some are alleging - and if, if, if, we wouldn't be talking about the latest black mark on the NHL.

But all the ifs turned true, a worst-case scenario arrived, and the game of ice hockey is once again turning introspective, trying to find that balance between speed and safety, physicality and legality, family entertainment and traumatic violence.