QUEBEC CITY (AP) — 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. They added that after evidence is collected, it will be determined if there are grounds for prosecution.
Chara took part in the Bruins’ morning skate before Thursday night’s home game against the Buffalo Sabres. 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.”
The NHL said on Wednesday it would not suspend Chara for Tuesday night’s hit, when he slammed Pacioretty into a glass partition.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman defended that decision after a congressional panel discussion about encouraging youngsters to play hockey.
“Our hockey operations people are extraordinarily comfortable with the decision that they made,” he said, according to The Canadian Press. “It was a horrific injury, we’re sorry that it happened in our fast-paced physical game, but I don’t think whether or not supplemental discipline was imposed would change what happened and, in fact, the people in the game who I have heard from, almost to a person … believe that it was handled appropriately by hockey operations.”
He also said there is no need to “over-legislate” hits to the head.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said in an open letter to the team’s fans on Thursday that “the Montreal Canadiens organization does not agree” with the league’s decision and that he had made his position clear to Bettman.
“The news of the NHL decision (Wednesday) was a hard blow for both the players and fans of the Montreal Canadiens,” wrote Molson, who noted that Bettman had agreed to make the issue a priority at the league’s general managers’ meetings next week in Florida. “It was one which shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard.”
In Toronto, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the NHL, “for its own sake,” should look seriously at the increase in serious injuries. He declined to comment on the hit on Pacioretty.
Bruins coach Claude Julien said after practice that he wouldn’t comment too much “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.
“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, the leaders of the Northeast Division, 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.”
Bettman said Pacioretty’s injury is part of the game. He also said most concussions and head injuries this season 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.
“Air Canada is a great brand, as is the National Hockey League,” Bettman said, “and if they decide they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars that’s their prerogative.”
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.”
Chara, who said he had no intent to hurt Pacioretty, was given a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct on the play. The Bruins’ captain has never been suspended in his 13-year career.
Pacioretty told TSN he was “upset and disgusted” that the league had not suspended Chara.
“I’m not mad for myself, I’m mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it’s OK, they won’t be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt,” he said.
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?”
Philadelphia defenseman Sean O’Donnell didn’t think a successful legal case could be made.
“Well, there’s always some prosecutors who would like to get their names in the papers, is what I’m thinking,” he said before the Flyers game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night. “There was no stick brought up, there was no punch. I don’t think there’s a lot of ground for those guys to stand on.”
The Canadiens, without Pacioretty, will take on the Blues Thursday in St. Louis. Coach Jacques Martin spoke at the morning skate.
“With Max, I think he’s recovering at the hospital and still being under observation,” Martin said. “Obviously, we’re not pleased with the league decision.”
Martin was asked about the criminal investigation.
“I think the organization is looking after doing the representation on the incident,” he said. “I think to me, that’s up to the organization’s responsibility.”
The Canadiens, with 81 points, are three behind first-place Boston in the Northeast.
“We had a meeting yesterday and informed the team of the situation and the status of Max,” Martin said. “Basically, he’s still recovering and our mandate is to focus on the game. Hopefully next week, they’ll be in better spirits.”
Copyright Associated Press