NHL fires back at airline

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had a sharp rebuke for Air Canada. (REUTERS/Christinne Muschi)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had a sharp rebuke for Air Canada. (REUTERS/Christinne Muschi)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:21 AM ET

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Commissioner Gary Bettman won't allow the NHL to be bullied by Air Canada.

As reported by QMI Agency, Denis Vandal, director of marketing/communication, has threatened to pull Air Canada's support of the NHL if action isn't taken on headshots.

The league sent a terse response Thursday to the airline.

"Air Canada is a great brand, as is the National Hockey League, and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative," Bettman told reporters in Washington following a meeting on Capitol Hill.

Not only does the airline own the naming rights to the Air Canada Centre in Toronto for the price-tag of $1.5 million a year in a deal that expires in 2019, it is also a major sponsor of all six Canadian teams.

A controversial letter from Vandal to Bettman, obtained by QMI, said Air Canada wants "immediate" and "serious" action by the NHL on headshots. Reports said the airline has contracts with 11 league teams and pulls in almost $20 million in revenue annually for transporting those teams.

Bettman suggested the 11 teams could find another airline.

"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," Bettman said.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an e-mail Thursday the league has told the airline to read its statement on the decision not to suspend Zdeno Chara for his hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty.

"We referred (Air Canada) to our public statement. We have no intention of engaging with them further at this point," Daly wrote.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an e-mail: "No one is available to do interviews (Thursday). I have no further details to offer at this time, but if that changes we will contact you."

League sources say the airline isn't alone with its concerns.

Other sponsors are wondering what direction the NHL is going to take.

"We have a long-term contract with (Air Canada)," Maple Leafs president and governor Richard Peddie said. "They have not contacted us and we defer all questions on their issue to the NHL."

Not everybody was being quiet Thursday.

Edmonton-based agent Ritch Winter said the league has to take action on headshots. He is concerned somebody will be killed if the board of governors don't get firmer with discipline.

"I'm speaking as a father and a husband who doesn't want to attend a client's funeral. I don't want to be there," Winter said. "The airline took a strong stance on this and it's something close to my heart.

"We have to put this in context: These are not hockey players. These are fathers and husbands whose employment is hockey. We can't put these men in a position where we don't provide the framework to prevent this sort of thing.

Everybody acts like everything is OK. Well, it's not OK."

This will be a hot topic when NHL general managers gather next week in Boca Raton, Fla., for winter meetings. Preventing headshots is on the agenda because concussions are in the forefront.

"I believe the NHL must place a total ban on all hits to the head whether intentional, incidental to physical contact or purely accidental," said Los Angeles-based agent Allan Walsh of Octagon Hockey.

"On headshots, we need to remove the discretion of the on-ice officials as much as possible and move towards a rule where the threshold inquiry is whether contact was made with the head, not whether there was an intent to

injure. The NHL must move swiftly in this direction to protect the game's greatest assets and avoid the tragedy of god forbid a player dying on the ice from a blow to the head."


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