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NHL faces deluge after Chara decision, including Montreal police investigation

Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty is wheeled away on a stretcher after taking a hit by Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara during second period NHL hockey action Tuesday, March 8, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty is wheeled away on a stretcher after taking a hit by Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara during second period NHL hockey action Tuesday, March 8, 2011 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL - The captain of the Boston Bruins in handcuffs? The NHL losing key sponsors? New federal guidelines on violence in hockey?

Not so fast.

The NHL was besieged Thursday by mounting anger at its handling of a stomach-churning hit by Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, and its treatment of violence in hockey more generally.

It faced pressure on several fronts: in the form of a criminal investigation by Montreal police; in stern remarks from Prime Minister Stephen Harper; and in Air Canada's threat to pull its sponsorship of the league.

It was a one-day crescendo in a season of growing outrage over the failure to stem the kind of thuggery that has seen some of its marquee players felled by concussions.

But the chances of change resulting from pressure on any of those fronts—either legal, political or economic—appeared far from certain.

Legal experts doubted that Chara might be charged. Even the opponent injured by his devastating bodycheck, the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty, expressed his opposition to the idea of prosecution.

As for the federal government, it may have voiced outrage over violence in hockey and a desire to raise awareness about it—but it sidestepped questions about whether it planned to take concrete steps, like legislation.

When it came to league sponsors, others issued more timid statements than Air Canada or said nothing at all.

By the end of the day Thursday, Pacioretty had left hospital. This was less than 48 hours after he sustained a hit that had many horrified onlookers fearing for his life. He suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra.

Pacioretty expressed his disappointment that the NHL hadn't suspended Chara but added: "I have no desire to see him prosecuted legally. I feel that the incident, as ugly as it was, was part of a hockey game."

Chara said after the Bruins' 4-3 overtime loss to Buffalo onThursday that he will "try to reach out" to Pacioretty and talk with him by telephone or in person "when the time is right." For now, Pacioretty "probably needs time and space" to be around his family, Chara said.

The day had begun with a headline-grabbing announcement that the Montreal police, acting on a recommendation from Quebec's chief prosecutor, would open a criminal investigation.

The prosecutor's office had initially been reluctant to wade into the incident at Tuesday's game, but hardened its tone considerably after the NHL announced the gesture would go unpunished.

"It is a criminal investigation to see if the action was... an assault, a crime in the Criminal Code," said Martine Berube, spokeswoman for Quebec's director of criminal and penal prosecutions.

Legal experts quickly expressed doubt that the investigation would result in charges against Chara.

"Twelve jurors would never convict that guy—even in Montreal," said John Galianos, a former major crimes investigator with Quebec's provincial police.

"You have to prove intention to hurt."

Chara was steadfast in his insistence that wasn't the case, saying: "I know, deep down, I did not do it intentionally."

The men had a well-documented rivalry, dating back several weeks. With both of them racing for the puck Tuesday near the player benches, the six-foot-nine Chara checked Pacioretty into the boards as the young Hab slammed into a stanchion supporting the glass.

One criminal lawyer said a successful prosecution would have to argue that the violence of the hit went above and beyond the normal level of violence in professional hockey.

But during a public appearance in Washington on Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that, as horrific as Pacioretty's injury was, the hit was part of "our fast-paced, physical game."

Montreal criminal lawyer Steven Slimovitch said it's easy to understand why the NHL would call such hits normal. He said it would be "very surprising," on the other hand, for prosecutors to try arguing that it was beyond the realm of acceptable behaviour in professional hockey.

Pacioretty's injury comes at a time when the league has already lost several star players to injuries from questionable hits—the most notable being superstar Sidney Crosby.

All season there have been calls for a crackdown on headshots, fighting and dangerous bodychecks.

That chorus received its most prominent voice to date when Prime Minister Stephen Harper waded into the debate Thursday.

At a news conference, while taking questions about the possible collapse of his minority government, the prime minister was asked about hockey hits. He urged the NHL to do something about violence.

"I just say this as a hockey fan: I'm very concerned about the growing number of very serious injuries, and in some cases to some of the premier players in the game," Harper said.

"I don't think that's good for the game and I think the league's got to take a serious look at that for its own sake."

And yet Harper's own minister of sport was at a loss to explain what concrete steps the government could take to make the sport safer at the professional level.

Gary Lunn ruled out making changes to the Criminal Code, promising only to "bring together different organizations, different experts in the field and raising the level of awareness."

The threat of economic pressure also appeared limited.

Bettman shrugged off Air Canada's warnings and suggested the league could easily find replacement sponsors.

Other companies shied away from making such threats when contacted by The Canadian Press.

Those other companies include Tim Hortons. The coffee chain simply replied that it encouraged the league to address concerns about violence.

The company's celebrity spokesman, Crosby, has been sidelined with a concussion for two months.

The issue will continue, however.

A group of fans incensed over recent injuries is planning a protest at the Bell Centre ahead of the next Canadiens home game on Tuesday.

Late Thursday, another avenue for change was suggested in a letter released by Habs chairman Geoff Molson.

In his missive, Molson expressed "frustration, disappointment and shock," over this week's incident.

He announced that Bettman had been persuaded to make safety a priority issue at next week's league meetings.

—With files from Ross Marowits in Montreal and Colin Perkel in Toronto

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