Corporate sponsors use leverage to influence head shot rules in the NHL

The brutal hit on Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty by Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara into the stanchion that was supporting the glass near the Canadien’s bench on March 9 has without a doubt sparked intense debate between the National Hockey League, corporate sponsors and spectators over head-shots and concussions, and what the NHL plans do about them. Pacioretty suffered a fractured 4th vertabrae and was the twenty-fourth player to receive a severe concussion. The combination of this particular hit and the increasing number of reported concussions has raised concerns amongst the NHL’s corporate sponsors, but only Air Canada has threatened to pull their sponsorship if the NHL does not actively address this issue.

Although I am not convinced that it was a publicity stunt, no one can deny that Air Canada did receive a lot of free press, and that their brand may have even been strengthened. First, Air Canada’s threat to pull their sponsorship reached news stations across North America, raising awareness of head-shots, but also serving as great advertising for the company. Secondly, the threat suggests that Air Canada is safety-conscious; from this, potential customers might infer that they will take extra precautions for the safety of their passengers, which is a form of quality customer service. Lastly, this demonstrates that the company has integrity, and in today’s competitive market, this is a valuable marketing tool that almost all companies utilize, but rarely seize the opportunity to prove. Air Canada did what they thought was best for their company, and no other corporation has publicly challenged their actions.  However, other corporate sponsors such as PepsiCo, Via Rail, Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE Inc.), the Bank of Nova Scotia, Scotiabank and even Canada’s beloved coffee franchise Tim Hortons, did not react as strongly as Air Canada did. This suggests that these companies are confident that their affiliation with the NHL will not compromise the integrity of their brand, especially when other leagues such as the National Football League (NFL) also has a high (player) concussion rate. And why shouldn’t they be?

In the 2009-10 season, the NHL ratified and implemented Rule 48, and formally called it an “illegal check to the head.” An illegal check to the head is defined as “a lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.” Before last year, no similar rule existed. During that time, the NHL did not find it difficult to acquire corporate sponsors, nor did those sponsors experience a drop in sales for the sole reason of being affiliated with an organization that was consistently accused of not taking player safety seriously. What must also be taken into consideration is that due to the rough nature of the sport, hockey has generated a culture that excludes players who are “weak.” “Enforcers” such as Bob Probert and Marty McSorely were renowned for their toughness, and they set a standard of “toughness” that players needed to meet if they did not want to be considered a “weakling” by teammates, coaches and viewers. As a result, this perception put players in the position where they would hide their concussion symptoms. However, this is beginning to change in the NHL. Concussions are not going unreported as much as they used to, and they are therefore being taken much more seriously by players and coaches than before Rule 48.

At the annual general managers meeting in Boca Raton, Florida throughout the week of March 14, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presented a five-point plan to limit concussions. The five-point plan will focus on:

  • Player equipment: reducing the size of equipment without reducing its purpose which is to protect players.
  • Sharpening protocol for evaluating concussions: a player who is suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the bench for assessment, and be examined not by the team trainer, but by a neutral doctor.
  • Enforcement of the rules: distributing harsher punishments for both first-time and repeat offenders. This rule will also evaluate how a coach and a team will be held accountable if a team has several “repeat offenders”.
  • Alterations to the “rink environment”: a safety engineering firm will be hired to evaluate all 30 arenas to determine where more safety measures can be made.
  • A “blue-ribbon” committee: Former NHL stars Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk will examine all safety-related issues on behalf of the players.

The development of the five-point concussion plan emphasizes that the NHL is not as barbaric a league as they’ve been portrayed, and that company brands are represented by a responsible organization. Compared to the National Football League (NFL) for example, on average, 125 concussions are diagnosed each regular season and the league is not (even in the slightest amount) experiencing a shortage of corporate sponsors, even though players use their heads as “battering rams.” Although hockey and football are entirely different sports, concussions are not a part of either game. They are a side-effect that has emerged out of the physical contact that occurs.

Regardless, fans do not care about head injuries enough to boycott products or services that corporate sponsor’s offer. The truth is that some fans are more concerned with seeking revenge on the perpetrators who hurt their favourite player than opposing the league’s corporate sponsors. Once again, corporations are off the hook because Max Pacioretty’s injury will have a greater negative effect on Zdeno Chara’s reputation than on any of the companies that sponsor the NHL.