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

getty
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.