LAS VEGAS – After Max Pacioretty arrived for the NHL Awards, he spotted Zdeno Chara from a distance. Chara is hard to miss, standing 6-foot-9 and weighing 255 pounds, and what happened is hard to forget.
It was only about 15 months ago when Pacioretty raced up ice for the Montreal Canadiens and Chara, the biggest of the big, bad Boston Bruins, shoved him along the boards and smashed his head into a stanchion. Pacioretty suffered a concussion and a fractured vertebra. Chara was not suspended.
Pacioretty was furious then, as controversy raged around him. He has a different perspective now – on Chara, on hockey, even on life – and he has mixed emotions about being here.
He bounced back with a breakout season – 33 goals, 65 points. He is a finalist for the Masterton Award, which goes to "the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey," while Chara is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the best all-around defenseman. Pacioretty is proud he bounced back; he wishes he never had to bounce back.
"It's kind of like a bad moment in my life I want to get over, but I just seem to not be able to do it," Pacioretty said. "But I'm glad that there is some positive – a lot of positive, actually – that has come out of the situation."
More than the goals and points, Pacioretty, 23, is proud of how he has grown up. He delivered his own head shot to an opponent – and received a three-game suspension for it. He realized Chara is not a monster, but a fellow competitor, and hockey is not played in slow motion or black-and-white, but in split-seconds and shades of gray.
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The Pacioretty-Chara incident helped the NHL spiral deeper into crisis, raising questions about the players' safety and their respect for one another. But it led to changes, and when you hear the rest of the story, you gain a deeper understanding of how respect really applies and evolves between the men on the ice.
"If I walk by him, I'd say hello," said Pacioretty of the guy who broke his neck. "It's not awkward. It's all part of the sport."
* * * * *
Remember what happened? Remember the furor that followed?
Pacioretty, listed at 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds, chipped the puck past Chara and sprinted along the left-wing boards. Chara angled him off and gave him a last-second shove. Pacioretty struck the stanchion – bowing the padding, gruesomely captured in one famous still photo – and dropped to the ice. He had to be stretchered off and taken to the hospital.
Chara received a major for interference and a game misconduct.
NHL executive Mike Murphy – standing in for disciplinarian Colin Campbell, because Campbell's son Gregory played for the Bruins – made the gutsy decision not to fine or suspend Chara. He called it a "hockey play."
After reviewing it over and over, after consulting with colleagues, he determined basically that it had happened fast and Chara had done nothing worthy of supplemental discipline. It had an unfortunate result, but it was part of the game.
Cries of injustice came from outside the league – from the media, to league sponsors like Air Canada, to politicians including Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. The Montreal police began an investigation.
Cries of injustices came from the Canadiens, too. Habs owner Geoff Molson wrote a letter to fans in which he said Murphy’s decision “shook the faith that we, as a community, have in this sport that we hold in such high regard.” Habs GM Pierre Gauthier said the NHL needed to “address where we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”
From his hospital room, Pacioretty told TSN he was "upset and disgusted" the league did not suspend Chara. "I thought the league would do something, a little something," he said then. "I'm not talking a big number … I don't know, one game, two games, three games, whatever … but something to show that it's not right."
Pacioretty also told TSN: "I heard [Chara] said he didn't mean to do it. I felt he did mean to do it. I would feel better if he said he made a mistake and that he was sorry for doing that. I could forgive that. But I guess he's talking about how I jumped up or something. I believe he was trying to guide my head into the turnbuckle. We all know where the turnbuckle is. It wasn't a head shot like a lot of head shots we see, but I do feel he targeted my head into the turnbuckle."
Chara texted Pacioretty not long afterward. Pacioretty didn't respond right away. He was home in Connecticut recovering. He wanted to get away from it all.
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"I was kind of upset with everything, how it all unfolded," said Pacioretty Tuesday. "I kind of got down on myself, and it made me question a lot of people."
"I definitely wish I could take some things back … some things how I handled it," he said. "But at the end of the day, I learned a lot about myself as a player and myself as a person. I think I was forced to grow up in a short amount of time."
* * * * *
After Pacioretty calmed down, returned to Montreal and started working out again, he called Chara. They spoke for about 10 minutes.
"He said, 'It might be hard to believe, but I actually didn't mean for that to be the outcome and I'm sorry for what happened,' " Pacioretty said.
It was still hard for Pacioretty to believe at that point.
"At first, I wanted to blame everyone else, and I wanted to judge everyone else," Pacioretty said. "So that's the feeling I had then. But the more I thought about it and the more I grew up, I realized that he truthfully was sorry. It honestly was a mistake, and that's how I still feel about it now."
Physically and mentally, Pacioretty took a big step before training camp. He ran into somebody during a scrimmage and twisted his neck. "I remember my neck cracking from the top of my head to the middle of my back," he said. Makes you shudder. But he was OK, and that's when he knew he was going to be OK.
The Pacioretty-Chara incident led to changes in arenas across the NHL. As a direct result, stanchions were replaced with curved glass to deflect the type of blow Pacioretty suffered when Chara shoved him. It was in the background as the rule governing illegal hits to the head was expanded, covering hits from all directions, not just those from the blindside.
In November, Pacioretty drilled Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, giving him a concussion and a broken nose. Though he didn't receive a penalty on the play, he received a three-game suspension. New disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, using the new version of the rule, determined he made the head the principle point of contact.
Suddenly, the skate was on the other foot.
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"People started to … not attack me, but almost call me a dirty player," Pacioretty said. "At the time, I didn't feel like what I did was really wrong because the rule has changed so much year to year. So that's why I was taken aback by it a little bit.
"But then I realized that [Chara] was in the same boat. A lot of people were attacking him and judging him and questioning him and I guess his mentality, and it kind of made me respect him a bit for the way he handled it."
Pacioretty texted Letang to apologize. He never heard back, but he understood that, too. He knew how Letang felt.
* * * * *
Pacioretty and Chara haven't had any deep 1-on-1, face-to-face conversations. The Habs and Bruins are division rivals. At most, Pacioretty has said “Hi,” and Chara has said something like, "Glad to see you back out here."
But they are both hockey players, and they have both seen the different sides of their profession. Independent of each other, they sound remarkably similar.
Pacioretty spoke to the media early Tuesday. He relived the Chara incident yet again and yet again, but this time, he handled it like this:
"Most people in the NHL respect each other as players," he said. "People may judge someone for a hit, but this sport is so fast and it's only getting faster. You have a split-second to make a reaction and to make a decision, so that's what's tough about it sometimes."
Chara spoke to the media a couple of hours later. He was asked what he thought about Pacioretty reaching out to Letang, the way he had reached out to Pacioretty. It was like an echo:
"In a split-second you do something," he said. "You don't even have time to think about it. You just react to it. So yeah, it's just a great gesture for him to reach out to Kris and give him the shout, and that's what we do. We play hard, but we're also humans and we don't want to hurt anybody on purpose."
You've got to respect that.
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