Critics list against NHL grows

Criticism of the NHL’s handling of on-ice violence mounted Friday, with Quebec’s premier and another major sponsor joining those who already have told the league that it needs to do more to protect its players.

The chorus of condemnation was sparked this week when Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens fractured a vertebra and sustained a concussion when he was checked into a padded stanchion supporting a glass partition by Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara on Tuesday night.

The league has been roundly censured since it decided not to fine or suspend Chara for what many saw as a vicious and potentially life-threatening hit.

Jean Charest, Quebec’s premier, said Friday that team owners need to urgently address hockey violence. He said he’s shocked by the level of brutality in the sport and the lack of effort by the league to stop it.

”It bothers me that the NHL isn’t wondering about the issue of violence,” he said. ”I think it would benefit the team owners to sit down with the directors of the league and reflect on it.”

Even though Commissioner Gary Bettman says the NHL’s new rule making blindside hits illegal is working, the league already was feeling pressure before Pacioretty was injured. All-Star Sidney Crosby has been out since January because of a concussion and it was recently announced that longtime enforcer Bob Probert suffered from brain damage at the time of his death.

Via Rail was the latest sponsor to voice its displeasure, sending a letter to Bettman on Friday.

”In Via Rail’s opinion, the NHL’s quick and ineffective ruling on the Pacioretty/Chara incident of last Tuesday is totally unacceptable as it does nothing to try to reverse the alarming trend of vicious hits that have sidelined some of the game’s greatest talents,” the letter from Canada’s government railway said.

It urges the league to take action on the violence when general managers meet next week in Florida.

Via Rail’s move followed one Thursday by Air Canada, which threatened to pull its sponsorship.

”From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality,” Denis Vandal, Air Canada’s director of marketing, wrote in a letter to Bettman that was first reported on by the Ottawa Sun.

Bettman dismissed the airline’s threat, saying the NHL could find other air carriers.

If Air Canada decides ”to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that’s their prerogative,” Bettman said, ”just like it’s the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don’t think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service.”

Montreal police also got involved Thursday, starting a criminal investigation into Chara’s hit to determine if there are grounds for prosecution. The police said they were acting on a request by Louis Dionne, Quebec’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions.

Questionable hits stayed in the spotlight Thursday night, when Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek was ejected early in Toronto’s game for shoving Philadelphia’s Daniel Carcillo into the boards from behind.

Chara was given a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct for slamming Pacioretty into the padded stanchion during Boston’s 4-1 loss in Montreal on Tuesday night. Chara, who said he had no intent to hurt Pacioretty, has never been suspended in his 13-year career.

The 22-year-old Pacioretty was released from the hospital Thursday and was resting at home, his agent said.

Pacioretty said he doesn’t want Chara prosecuted.

”I sincerely appreciate all of the support that I have received since my injury,” he said in a statement. ”I was disappointed that the NHL did not suspend Zdeno Chara. However, I have no desire for him to be prosecuted legally. I feel that the incident, as ugly as it was, was part of a hockey game.” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr called for ”maximizing the safety” in the area of the rink where the hit occurred and said the union would inspect the rink in Montreal ”and elsewhere as needed, to make sure the appropriate padding is in place.”

Two companies answered the call for improving arena safety, saying Friday that they have products that could reduce injuries from collisions with the protective glass and the stanchions that hold up the glass along the boards.

The issue of safety is sure to top the agenda next week when the 30 GMs convene in Florida as the league scrambles for ways to protect its players’ health while keeping the physical brand of hockey its fans love.