Pacioretty fallout: Air Canada threatens to pull sponsorships over NHL headshot problem

50 Comments

In the wake of the decision by the NHL not to fine or suspend Bruins captain Zdeno Chara for his hit on Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty, a hit that has left Pacioretty with a broken neck and a severe concussion, a lot of the discussion that has surrounded the situation has centered on the NHL’s willingness to let things go so long as it’s a “hockey play.”

Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard went unpunished because it was a “hockey play” last year, before Rule 48 came about anyhow, and now Chara’s brutal hit on Pacioretty falls under the same header whether fans like it or not. The NHL’s lack of action has gotten the attention of one of the NHL’s largest sponsors and they are not pleased at all.

Air Canada’s director of marketing and communications Denis Vandal has written the NHL and the governors of all six Canadian teams to tell them they are not pleased with the league’s actions in the wake of the Pacioretty incident and that if things don’t change with the NHL, they’ll withdraw their sponsorship in the NHL.

Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun shares the blockbuster revelation and the letter from Vandal.

“We are contacting you (Wednesday) to voice our concern over (Tuesday night’s) incident involving Max Pacioretty and Zdeno Chara at the Bell Centre in Montreal,” wrote Vandal. “This is following several other incidents involving career-threatening and life-threatening headshots in the NHL recently.”

Vandal noted the controversial issue is becoming bad for Air Canada’s brand.

“From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents; action must be taken by the NHL before we are encountered with a fatality.

“Unless the NHL takes immediate action with serious suspension to the players in question to curtail these life-threatening injuries, Air Canada will withdraw its sponsorship of hockey.”

“As a strong supporter and sponsor of NHL Hockey in Canada and several U.S. cities, Air Canada is very concerned with the state of hockey today,” Vandal noted.

“While we support countless sports, arts and community events, we are having difficulty rationalizing our sponsorship of hockey unless the NHL takes responsibily to protect both the players and the integrity of the game.”

Having a major sponsor like this speak up and speak out about their concerns with the game is virtually unheard of. Air Canada of course owns the naming rights to Air Canada Center in Toronto and, as Garrioch notes in his piece, it’s believed that they have sponsorship deals with all six Canadian teams.

Air Canada’s bombshell tactic to shake the NHL into action does come with a bit a curious PR angle too. Air Canada is based out of Dorval, Quebec, near Montreal. Doing right by the home team to shake your wallet at the league when they feel the NHL didn’t act appropriately could be viewed as a gross abuse of power.

There’s also the part of this in which if the league does jump as Air Canada threatens to pull their money, that if the league made sweeping changes to protect the players with this as the motivation and not countless awful blows to the head, there’s no amount of public relations mastery to help the NHL look good. After all, if money is the motivation for change and not the players health that’s an equally heinous possibility. It also kicks the door open for other sponsors to make threats if there are other parts of the game they don’t like and would like to see changed because they dislike the association it makes for them. (Fighting, anyone?)

Air Canada being proactive like this is stunning. If they’re honest about this and they’re seeking hockey to make changes for the better, good for them for showing the compassion and care for the game and the players that those in charge of the NHL have seemingly lost their way with in recent years.

If there’s other motivations at work here for Air Canada, be it them taking care of business at home in Quebec or trying to drum up their own business by taking a side in a very public affair which most fans share their opinion, then this is nonsensical PR buffoonery and exploitation at its absolute worst. The NHL has to take their threat serious enough to hear them out, but the ball is in Air Canada’s court now in how they handle this.

How will Bruins handle loss of Charlie McAvoy?

Leave a comment

Monday brought rough news for the red-hot Boston Bruins: sensational rookie defenseman Charlie McAvoy will miss at least two weeks after undergoing a procedure to treat an abnormal heartbeat.

As you can see in the video above, Keith Jones and Anson Carter discussed McAvoy’s absence, believing that the Bruins will be able to handle it reasonably well.

Tuesday represents the first test, as the B’s take on the New Jersey Devils in a game that’s currently in progress. It’s unclear how much it has to do with McAvoy not being in the lineup, but early on Boston is struggling on defense.

Via Left Wing Lock, it looks like Brandon Carlo slides into the top pairing with Zdeno Chara, while the other pairings look like this:

Chara — Carlo

Torey KrugAdam McQuaid

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Now, Bruce Cassidy deserves credit for taking Claude Julien’s move to a more modern system in 2016-17 to a new level this season, and players like Krug and Carlo boast some promise.

That said, McAvoy’s beyond-his-age impact might be slipping under the radar. So far this season, only Chara (23:26 per game) is averaging more ice time than McAvoy (22:48), with Krug coming in at a distant third of 20:01. McAvoy’s possession stats have, honestly, been pretty brilliant.

While McAvoy undoubtedly benefits from the presence of Chara and what Jones (persuasively) argues is the best offensive line in hockey in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak, other blueliners haven’t been this brilliant even while receiving such a plum gig. Via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data, you can see that McAvoy has been a beast in transition and in denying opponents entry into his zone:

In other words, McAvoy is off the charts for a 20-year-old by most measures, including a healthy 25 points in 45 games this season. If the Calder Trophy was friendlier to defensemen, he’d probably be getting more hype as one of the best rookies in the NHL.

You don’t have to use “for a rookie” or “for a 20-year-old” qualifiers with McAvoy, though. He’s an important piece by any measure.

Even if McAvoy’s numbers are quite inflated – again, plausible with Chara still being really good – the Bruins could feel the sting from a depth standpoint. Guys who maybe should be in street clothes instead get foisted into the lineup. Someone better suited for a mid-level role might be asked to do too much.

McAvoy is expected, at least initially, to only miss two weeks, which would mean missing somewhere between 5-7 games the way Boston’s schedule falls. Of course, this is a heart-related procedure we’re talking about, so the Bruins need to proceed with caution if the young skater experiences setbacks.

If it’s only two weeks, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal; it might just give the Bruins a chance to realize just how pivotal he’s been in their rise from a team fighting for its playoff life to something more.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at Detroit Red Wings

Getty
Leave a comment

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Philadelphia Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Michael RafflValtteri FilppulaJakub Voracek

Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott Laughton — Tyrell Goulbourne

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

[Flyers look to push win streak to four games against Red Wings]

Detroit Red Wings

Andreas AthanasiouDylan LarkinTyler Bertuzzi

Anthony ManthaHenrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist

Tomas TatarFrans NielsenMartin Frk

David BoothLuke GlendeningLuke Witkowski

Danny DeKeyserNick Jensen

Niklas KronwallMike Green

Jonathan EricssonXavier Ouellet

Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard

NHL wants Seattle, but is the Emerald City a hockeytown?

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
6 Comments

By Tim Booth (AP Sports Writer)

KENT, Wash. (AP) — They showed up on a Tuesday night in early January to enjoy the 2-for-1 beers and hot dogs, the free parking, the $15 tickets a few rows off the ice and the chance to chant ”Portland sucks,” for three hours.

Some of the more than 5,000 people in attendance wore the jerseys of the Islanders, Sharks, Rangers, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Canucks, Golden Knights and of course, the hometown Seattle Thunderbirds of the junior-level Western Hockey League. Someday it may be the Sasquatch, Totems or Sockeyes or whatever a potential future NHL franchise in Seattle ends up adopting as its nickname.

This scene plays out regularly inside the ShoWare Center, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Seattle. Junior hockey in Seattle has a storied history. Hockey’s history in the Emerald City dates back more than a century to when the Seattle Metropolitans hoisted the 1917 Stanley Cup.

All indications are that the NHL and Seattle are on the verge of a marriage sometime in 2018. The arrival of an NHL franchise – likely in 2020 or 2021 depending on construction of a remodeled Seattle Center arena – will fill a void in the gloomy months of the sports calendar and drop the NHL into the biggest market in the country without a winter sports team.

But can a booming Seattle eventually become a hockeytown?

”It’s the last place in the United States in my opinion to catch on to hockey,” said former Philadelphia Flyers general manager and current Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell.

”Everyone assumes that because we’re close to Canada we’re into hockey and that’s not the case,” Farwell continued. ”There is no reason this can’t be a good hockey town and I think there is a lot of pluses.”

The first test of Seattle’s willingness to embrace the NHL will arrive in the coming months when the prospective NHL ownership group begins a season-ticket drive, the same way the league tested Las Vegas.

But finding a foothold in Seattle will be an examination of how starved fans are for another team. Basketball is embedded in the DNA of the region thanks to 41 years of the SuperSonics until 2008 and a lengthy history of producing NBA talent. When the rain of the fall and winter drive young athletes inside, they grab a basketball and head for the nearest gym to play pickup games.

Basketball courts and coffee shops seem to be on every corner, but ice rinks are scarce.

”The chance to participate and stay involved and play the game needs ice rinks and that’s all it would take,” Farwell said. ”There’s no reason this couldn’t be grown to be a good hockey city and center and stuff but it’s not automatic and it’s not just going to happen.”

Any NHL team in Seattle would find a completely different landscape than a decade ago when the Sonics and NBA moved to Oklahoma City and the city lost its winter sports outlet.

Seattle’s skyline is filled with as many construction cranes as snowcapped peaks in the surrounding mountains. Amazon has taken over an entire section of the city, joined nearby by satellite offices of Google and Facebook. The amount of wealth now in the Seattle market is part of the reason Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke has regularly called Seattle ”a brilliant marketplace” and one of the most enticing expansion opportunities in pro sports history.

Seattle has become a city of transplants due to the booming local economy. A hockey franchise would provide those newcomers a team to rally around, much like what happened when the Sounders of the MLS arrived in 2009.

But it’s a different sports marketplace than a decade ago, when ticket sales and television revenues were driving franchise success. The globalization of sports due to technology has become a challenge for all leagues, said Jennifer Hoffman of the College of Education at the University of Washington.

”I think the question about our population is what sports are they interested in? And that’s going to be a challenge for all of our franchises, our big franchises and our smaller ones,” Hoffman said. ”It’s not a Seattle phenomenon but we’re a good case for this point in history where digital transition is really occurring and it’s really hard to know who your fans are and where they are.”

John Barr believes there are plenty of potential hockey fans in the Seattle market. A Bay Area transplant, Barr has become the voice of hockey fans with his NHLtoSeattle.com website and social accounts. Barr got hooked on the sport while attending San Jose games when the Sharks arrived the Bay Area. He’s regularly makes trips to Boston, Minnesota, Montreal, Nashville and Las Vegas for games.

”The Seahawks run this town and I think a lion share of people obviously want the Sonics back,” Barr said. ”I totally understand the hierarchy there, but I just think this is a great opportunity for the area to have the NHL and have a winter sport.”

Season tickets are just one of several significant obstacles. Arena construction won’t begin until later this year with an ambitious goal of completion in late 2020. There are also transportation issues near the arena site.

And the franchise needs to be awarded in the first place. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wouldn’t even entertain discussion about Seattle recently.

”The application has not yet been filed so any speculation about Seattle is, at this point, a little premature,” Bettman said.

In the corner of his office, Thunderbirds Vice President Colin Campbell has a photo of Wayne Gretzky in the foreground with Campbell behind the glass. He grew up in Edmonton and was a Zamboni driver for the Oilers in his younger years. Now he ponders the future of hockey in Seattle with the NHL on the horizon.

”It always amazed me when I first got here that people didn’t even know there was a hockey team in town. Well, that’s still the case,” said Campbell, who moved to Seattle in 1995. ”It’s still out there, and yet we’re doing very well in this building and everything is going good. But it’s a big market, it’s a tough market to reach … so with an NHL team coming in and working together it will create new opportunities to grow.”

Oilers’ Jesse Puljujarvi bouncing back strong from AHL demotion

Getty Images
2 Comments

It wasn’t the easiest start to a career, but Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers has used an AHL demotion to take hold of a regular NHL spot this season.

The No. 4 overall pick from the 2016 draft played 28 games last season in Edmonton before being sent down to Bakersfield for the rest of the year. It was the right move by general manager Peter Chiarelli, even though it should have happened earlier than it did, especially when you look at just how much his ice time had been declining.

Fast forward to training camp this past September and the 19-year-old Puljujarvi still needed some more seasoning in the AHL. Head coach Todd McLellan said at the time they expected him to be one of their nine-best forwards and weren’t willing to keep him up with the big club to be stuck on the fourth line.

“We didn’t feel like he won that position and therefore we wanted to get him to Bakersfield and have him start the season there and get him working on his game,” McLellan said after camp.

Puljujarvi got a second chance in November when injuries forced an opening on the Oilers’ right side. “He’s not going to be our savior,” McLellan said. “Everybody else has to contribute and help him feel comfortable.”

Had it not been for injuries, it was anyone’s guess when Puljujarvi would have received another shot. He wasn’t exactly lighting it up in the AHL with a goal and five points in 10 games. The call up was basically a test. We need a body on the right wing. Show us what you got. The answer so far has been a passing grade: nine goals and 14 points in 30 games.

Using his size — 6’4, 211 lbs. — Puljujarvi has positioned himself in and around the net more compared to last season and it’s reflected in where most of his 80 shots have come from, as HockeyViz.com shows. He’s also shooting more and is currently second in the league in shots per 60 at even strength (11.77), per Natural Stat Trick, up from 7.27 a season ago.

The production has resulted in more ice time, which is up three minutes from last season. As a young player, it’s common for the points to dry up and have that drought affect your play, but that hasn’t been the case for Puljujarvi, something the coaching staff has noticed.

“He’s played well. He’s played confident,” said McLellan earlier this week. “The big test for him is that he went dry for five, six, seven, eight games without anything. Was he going to regress and lose his confidence? I thought he looked very confident the other day so that tells me he’s continuing his growth and he’s able to fight off those negative demons, if you will. As a result, he gets a little bit more time on the power play and we’re trying to position him where he can use his shot somewhat. He’s really starting to understand the systematic part of it and he’s been fun to be around the last little bit because he’s believing in himself and everyone else is believing in him.”

On and off the ice, Puljujarvi has shown an infectious personality as he works on his English. The hanging tongue when he skates? “That’s my thing, I don’t know why I do it.” Videobombing Connor McDavid while eating pizza? “That’s one time!”

Then there was the one afternoon during Edmonton’s bye week where Puljujarvi hit up a local outdoor rink and ended up playing some shinny with a couple of stunned young fans, leaving them with some photos, a signed stick and plenty of memories.

“I just wanted to go outside and do something. It’s always fun to skate,” he said.

One thing to take out of an Oilers season that hasn’t had a lot of positives is Puljujarvi’s emergence. He took advantage of an opportunity and it appears as if his days in Bakersfield are behind him for good.

“The sky is as tall as he wants it to be,” said Connor McDavid. “He’s big, skates well, is confident, has a great shot. But I think it all goes back to his size. He’s 6-4, still young, trying to (grow) into his body. He’ll be that solid-on-his feet, good puck-battle guy. Good in front of the net. The sky’s the limit for him.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.