SUN Hockey Pool

Excerpt from The Instigator: Gary Bettman's stickhandling of the Pacioretty injury

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media in New York September 13, 2012. (REUTERS)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media in New York September 13, 2012. (REUTERS)

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:31 PM ET

In his book, The Instigator, author Jonathon Gatehouse details the ascension of a New York City kid who never played hockey to the sport's biggest job. Gatehouse examines Gary Bettman's motivations and explains how a true outsider manages to keep order in the game Canadians love.

In this the second of two excerpts, Gatehouse details how Bettman stickhandled his way through the issue of player safety after Max Pacioretty's frightening injury.


From: The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever by Jonathon Gatehouse. Copyright © Jonathon Gatehouse, 2012. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).

It wasn't just the sight that sickened, it was the sound; a percussive ring like a sledgehammer driving a spike that carried all the way up to the rafters of Montreal's Bell Centre. And now Max Pacioretty was lying face down on the ice, twitching.

The play had started innocently enough. A draw in the Habs end that was won a little too cleanly by the Boston Bruins' Gregory Campbell, with the puck flying back through his legs and skittering all the way to the far boards. Pacioretty, a fleet 22-year-old Montreal Canadiens winger, got his stick on it first, chipping it past oncoming defenceman Zdeno Chara. But when he tried to step around the Bruins captain the big man rode him into the boards and gave him an extra shove for good measure, propelling him helmet first into the glass partition between the players benches. Chara was looking down the rink when Pacioretty's head met a thinly padded stanchion at speed, stopping for the briefest of moments, then reversing directions like something out of an old Looney Tunes short.

The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Slovak was given a five-minute major for interference and a game misconduct. Pacioretty, who remained unconscious for long minutes while the crowd at the rink and viewers at home anxiously held their breath, was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture in his neck. Had his head hit the stanchion faster, or at a slightly different angle, he could have easily been left paralyzed, or worse.

The NHL had trouble divining intent. The day after the March 8, 2011, incident, the league issued a press release saying it would levy no further discipline on Chara, a player who had never been suspended during the course of a 13-year career.

Commissioner Gary Bettman shrugged the hit off as a hazard of the trade. "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," he told reporters, somehow working a marketing pitch into the middle of an expression of regret.

As far as he was concerned the subject was closed, and the whole league was "extraordinarily comfortable" with the decision. But supporters of the Canadiens were not. At the behest of a local sports radio show, they flooded Montreal's 9-1-1 network with thousands of calls reporting that a crime had been committed at the Bell Centre (it got so bad that the authorities pleaded for people to stop, voicing fears that the system would collapse). The papers asked whether the commissioner had been the one who received a blow to the head, and demanded justice. Within a day, the provincial director of criminal prosecutions instructed the Montreal police to open an official investigation. Public opinion was running solidly against the league. A poll for Maclean's magazine found that 91% of Quebecers were dissatisfied with Chara's punishment; nationally, 60% of Canadians said they believed pro hockey had become more violent in recent years.

And it wasn't just the fans who were enraged. Geoff Molson, who along with his brothers Andrew, Justin, and some other partners had returned the Habs to the family fold in 2009, paying American businessman George Gillett more than $500 million for the team and the rink, posted a message on the club website. The NHL's decision "was a hard blow for both the players and fans of the Montreal Canadiens," he wrote. "It was one which shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard." The franchise would lead the charge to clean up the game, he vowed, so that no other family would have to go through what Pacioretty's parents were then experiencing.

Calin Rovinescu, the CEO of Air Canada, went a step further.

He had been watching his favourite team from the comfort of his Montreal living room that night and was soon on the phone to his marketing department, running white hot. The result was a strident letter to Bettman, copied to presidents of the other Canadian franchises, in which the airline threatened to sever its commercial relationship with the game.

"While we support countless sports, arts and community events, we are having difficulty rationalizing our sponsorship of hockey," it read. "Unless the NHL takes immediate actions with serious suspensions to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship."

With its focus on punishment, the missive was perhaps more a product of the boss's unbridled love for the Canadiens than any deep commitment to corporate social responsibility, but it garnered a lot of attention. Other NHL sponsors in Canada were soon drawn into the fray about player safety. In that same national Maclean's poll, 70% of respondents said they supported the airline's position. And just 6% said they believed the league was doing a "very good" job of protecting its players.

Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the federal opposition, urged Bettman to take action to clean up the sport before Parliament had to. Mario Lemieux, the former Pittsburgh Penguin star-turned-owner -- still smarting from the loss of Sidney Crosby to a concussion three months before -- weighed in, proposing a system of escalating fines for teams to go along with player suspensions. Several agents called for a total ban on blows to the head, whether deliberate or accidental. "Everybody acts like everything is OK. Well, it's not OK," said Ritch Winter, the Edmonton-based representative who counts Marian Hossa (who joined the ranks of head-shot victims during the 2012 playoffs) and Ryan Getzlaf as part of his stable. "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."

For the briefest of moments, it seemed like a movement might be building -- even within the game's more conservative constituencies -- to eliminate on-ice thuggery. Then Bettman turned his guns on his critics and shut it down. The first target was Air Canada, whose public letter was greeted with a public warning. When he was buttonholed on the issue, Bettman flashed a cold smile and allowed that the airline had every right to direct its sponsorship dollars -- local agreements with the Canadian franchises plus $1.5 million a year for the naming rights to the home of the Maple Leafs -- anywhere it wished. "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," he said, neatly calling $20-million-a-year worth of business with 11 different teams into question. From that point on, the airline refused to comment on the affair, abandoning its charge to fix the game for the good of its bottom line. And when the 2011-12 season opened, all its sponsorship deals were still in effect.

Geoff Molson, who had been canny enough to at least share his screed with NHL headquarters in New York before releasing it to the public -- but then rashly failed to make all of the editorial changes that were suggested -- won himself a blistering phone call from the commissioner. Eugene Melnyk, the owner of the Ottawa Senators, who had gone on a Toronto radio station espousing zero tolerance for goons, received a similarly pointed reminder of the need to keep ranks. And at a regularly scheduled meeting of general managers in Florida, Brian Burke, Bettman's old friend and defender, took on his colleagues from Montreal and Pittsburgh, suggesting that their owners needed to learn to keep their yaps shut.

The commissioner then went into proactive mode, introducing a five-point plan to reduce head injuries. There would be a joint player and league committee to look at changes to equipment as well as a "blue ribbon" panel to look at the larger issue of concussions.

Lemieux's suggested fines for teams and coaches were given the thumbs-up. Safety engineers would be dispatched to all 30 NHL rinks to assess the boards and glass. And a new protocol was put in place requiring players who had had their bell rung to at least leave the ice and be evaluated by a doctor.

It all fell far short of what many fans and observers had been demanding, but it was enough to dampen the fires. Ten days after the Chara incident, Montreal coach Jacques Martin reported that Pacioretty -- already at home and apparently symptom free -- might be back in the Habs lineup for the playoffs. (He returned to the ice in early April but didn't receive medical clearance to play before the Canadiens bowed out in the first round to Boston.) The regular season drew to a close and the hunt for the Stanley Cup began.

Despite a near tragedy, and the continuing absence of the game's biggest young star, Sidney Crosby, Bettman had managed to change the channel. Just like he had done so many times before.


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