WILMINGTON, Mass. — After practice Wednesday at Ristuccia Arena, Zdeno Chara's coach and teammates all offered support of their captain, believing there was no evil intent behind his hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty Tuesday night.
After a long day of waiting, Chara finally got word late Wednesday afternoon that the NHL agreed. The Bruins defenseman was not fined or suspended for the hit that left Pacioretty with a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture of the fourth cervical vertebrae.
As horrible as the effects of that hit were, this was one time the NHL got it right by not overreacting and punishing a player for the result and ignoring the lack of intent.
"It's been hard," Chara said while still awaiting the league's decision. "Obviously I feel bad about what happened. I was trying to make a strong hockey play and play hard and it's very unfortunate the player got hurt and had to leave the game. Obviously it is in my mind."
What wasn't in Chara's mind was a deliberate attempt to injure Pacioretty, despite their past run-ins this season. Pacioretty was the player who shoved Chara after scoring the overtime game-winner in Boston's last visit to Montreal in January, triggering a scrum as an enraged Chara tried to get at the Canadiens' winger.
With that history, there's little doubt that Chara would be looking to finish any hit on Pacioretty, or any other Canadien, that he could. But throughout his lengthy NHL career, Chara has shown he's not the type of player to cross the line to deliberately injure an opponent regardless of the intensity of the rivalry.
"I know that Zee is going through a lot of stuff now and being perceived as a dirty player, which anybody who knows Zee knows that's not the case," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Knowing him as I know him, there was no intent to injure the player on that play. The location of the play is what caused the damage, and that's the unfortunate part of that."
The hit came along the boards in front of the Bruins bench. Pacioretty had pushed the puck ahead and Chara looked to close him off along the way to prevent an odd-man break. The hit was late, with the puck already gone, and Chara was rightfully called for interference. Anywhere else on the ice that would have been the end of the story.
But Chara and Pacioretty came together just in front of the glass partition between the benches, and the hit drove Pacioretty's head into the stanchion. Pacioretty was knocked out and remained motionless for several minutes before being taken off the ice on a stretcher and rushed to a local hospital.
"It's just an unfortunate thing, it's not like he was trying to hurt the guy," Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. "He didn't even hit him too hard. He just rubbed him out and he hit his head on that partition, and that thing's not going to move, so that's where he got hurt."
The results were devastating. The Bruins know all too well the effects of a head injury like what Pacioretty suffered and the long road to recovery he faces. They've seen it first hand with Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard suffering serious concussions in recent years.
"You never want to see that happen and I'm sure Zee feels bad," Bergeron said. "It's unfortunate and I hope Pacioretty is going to feel better.
"I don't know, we'll see," Bergeron added when asked if he thought Chara would be suspended. "You have to look at the hit. If it's a bad hit, it's a bad hit. This one was unfortunate that he hit the partition there. It was a bad spot to get hit. They were both kind of leaning into the bench as Zee was trying to buy time on the chip."
Julien also was careful with his words when speaking with the media before the NHL had announced its decision, but stressed that all the Bruins were hoping for a full and quick recovery for Pacioretty.
"That's a tough question to answer," Julien said. "If I answer how bad I feel about [Chara], it's perceived as not caring about the other guy [Pacioretty]. I think the one thing that everybody here hopes, the human side of us wishes him to recover quickly."
At the same time, Julien was quick to defend his captain.
"He plays hard, but he plays clean," Julien said. "It's already a challenge for him at 6-foot-9 to keep his elbows down because the minute he lifts them up a little bit he's hitting guys in the head. So he's made a really good adjustment in regards to that. It's always easy to criticize. It's always easy to attack a guy. But if you take time to look at the situation, there's always going to be a challenge for him [being perceived as] the big bully because he's 6-foot-9, yet he's never shown that. He's defended his teammates, but he's never been a dirty player."
On Wednesday, the NHL agreed. Many fans won't, especially those in Montreal who have lost one of their bright young stars indefinitely. But this was a case of tragic consequences coming out of a play without malicious intent.
This wasn't a situation where a player was targeted with a deliberate head shot like when Matt Cooke blindsided Savard with his cheap shot just over a year ago. That play also drew no suspension, with the league arguing there was no rule on the books against such blindside hits.
There is now, which is the only good thing to come out of that incident. There is also a rule on the books against interference for plays like Chara made Tuesday night. That was called and enforced, with Chara assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
That was a just ruling. So was Wednesday's decision not to assess any further punishment on Chara. For once, the NHL's inconsistent wheel o' justice got one right.
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