Earlier this week, I was chatting with a fan of another team and she made the caustic comment that the only reason people are freaking out about Max Pacioretty's injury is because he plays for the Canadiens. She meant that the Habs enjoy some kind of underhanded favouritism in the NHL, and their fans are hysterical and overreact. Obviously I don't agree with her reasoning, but I think what she said is true.
I think if Chara had hit a Columbus Blue Jacket or a Florida Panther like that, we would still have experienced the sickening feeling in the pits of our stomachs. We'd still be furious with the league when Chara got no suspension, and we'd still be horrified that the life and health of a promising young player were so close to being ended. That would be it, though. We wouldn't be as outraged in such great numbers if it weren't one of our own.
The thing is, Canadiens fans are passionate, numerous and powerful. There's a rabid appetite for everything Habs, so if there's a player caught talking to an alleged mobster, it's front-page news. If the Canadiens lose three in a row, millions of people are tearing their hair out. If they win, there are an equal number of millions walking with a lighter step. Walk into any opposition arena and, if the Habs are winning, you'll hear fans there singing Ole. That doesn't happen for other teams. Canadiens fans have rallied and rioted for their Habs before. They've mourned, celebrated, hoped and worried together for a hundred years, all for the sake of the team that owns their hearts.
Habs fans are everywhere. They're MPs, corporate CEOs, politicians, lawyers and doctors. They're people who have the power to make decisions and force changes. Hurt a Hab, and the wrath of important people will be aroused. There's no coincidence that two of the corporate sponsors, Via Rail and Air Canada, who have warned the NHL to clean up its act or lose their support, are based in Quebec. The Quebec police are looking into the incident, which probably wouldn't happen elsewhere, and there's suspicion that Canada's federal minister of sport, Gary Lunn, may be a Habs fan too.
The Canadiens themselves are one of the flagship franchises of the NHL. They're the league's oldest and most successful team, and even if they're no longer the powerhouse of the '70s, they're the most recognizable team in hockey and one of the wealthiest. Pierre Gauthier and Geoff Molson carry some weight in the boardroom.
Sometimes, the intense spotlight on the Canadiens is an inconvenience. Every scuffle in practice is analysed and debated to death. Players can't go out for groceries without allowing an extra 20 minutes for autographs, and if they have too much to drink on their summer holidays, the pictures make it around the internet like wildfire. In a case like this, though, that power might be harnessed for good.
Pacioretty's injury has already drawn more attention from people with the power to influence change than Sidney Crosby's has. If that horrible hit had to happen to anyone, only the fact that it was to a Canadien might keep it in the public eye long enough to make a difference to league policy.
So, my friend was right. The Chara hit is only creating such a huge public furor because it happened to a Hab. For the sake of the players, the fans who love the game and the future of the NHL, though, the Canadiens notoriety might be the only thing that works to force the rule makers to finally wake up.