Harper should bring Gary Bettman to Ottawa and read him the riot act

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The Gazette, Monday, March 14, 2011

What do you think Canadians were talking about on the weekend, Bev Oda and the word "not," or Max Pacioretty and the NHL not doing anything about the hit to his head?

If you're a hockey mom or dad, you know the answer to what parents were discussing in the hockey nation over the weekend.

Almost as shocking as the NHL's decision not to suspend Boston's Zdeno Chara, on the grounds the hit on Pacioretty wasn't deliberate, was the astonishing arrogance of commissioner Gary Bettman to the criticism by Air Canada in threatening to withdraw its corporate sponsorship if the league didn't take punitive action on hits to the head.

"Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League," Bettman replied, "and if they decide they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative, just like it is 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."

All six Canadian NHL teams fly on Air Canada charters, and the airline owns naming rights to the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Bettman's response was to hit Air Canada's head into the boards. In the annals of damage control, this ranks right up there with the president of BP saying he wanted his life back after 11 people died in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Meanwhile, in Toronto for a health announcement, the prime minister was asked his views on the incident in particular and violence in hockey in general.

"I do think that is something (the NHL is) going to have to address," said Stephen Harper, himself a hockey dad and keen student of the game about which he's writing a book when he's not busy running the country. "I'm not sure there is a role for politicians but it certainly is something that is concern to all of us."

He went on: "Where we're concerned is we see a growing number of serious injuries and other injuries in kids' sports, and that is something that we're particularly seized with taking action on and working with our provincial partners on."

The PM got it exactly right. In the Commons, Sport Minister Gary Lunn agreed that while it isn't government's role to regulate pro hockey, it is up to the NHL to clean up its act. Privately, he was much more scathing, as was Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, himself a former hockey star at Loyola High who went on to Princeton on a hockey scholarship. Out with colleagues and friends in Ottawa last Wednesday, Flaherty said it was the worst hit he had ever seen.

I quite agree. And as someone who was at the Bell Centre last Tuesday, I've never heard the noisiest crowd in hockey go so quiet as during the seeming eternity that Pacioretty lay unconscious on the ice.

Given the sickening impact of his head being slammed into the stanchion on the boards, he's lucky to be alive.

Will it take a death on ice for the NHL to come to its senses and ban head hits?

It's not a coincidence that high-sticking has virtually disappeared since players started receiving major penalties for drawing blood. Stiff sanctions have resulted in behaviour modification.

Similarly, steep fines and suspensions for head hits would reduce if not eliminate shots to the head. For one thing, it is a matter of the players' safety. For another, it is a question of NHL players as role models for our youth.

Finally, and if nothing else, the NHL should think of protecting its investments. It doesn't do anything for the game to have its marquee player, Sidney Crosby, out for at least the regular season, if not the playoffs, with head injuries incurred in savage hits.

In an unprecedented development in the closed club that is the NHL, Canadiens owner Geoff Molson issued an open letter to the club's fans, in which he took issue with Bettman's lame refusal to do anything. Good for him. If the people who run the game won't do anything about this, maybe those who own it can.

As for government, there is some leverage for Harper. It is called moral suasion.

He can, and should, summon Bettman to 24 Sussex and read him the riot act. He can, and should, remind him that while the NHL might have its office in New York, the heart of the game is here, in the hockey nation.

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