Saturday, March 12, 2011

The unCanadian values of the NHL and Zdeno Chara

In some countries, sport is more than sport. In Brazil, soccer is religion. In Pakistan, cricket reigns supreme. In Canada, Canadians bleed ice hockey. To illustrate this last point, Canada’s 3 largest markets for professional sports all drive at Canadian notions: Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks. Further evidence of Canada’s link to hockey- according to TSN, nearly 80% of Canadians watched the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey game.

If a brand sponsors ice hockey in some way (like Tim Horton’s sponsors the NHL and minor league hockey), the brand gets endowed with intensively visceral Canadiana notions. This endowment then stirs up patriotic notions in the consumers’ gut – which increases the likability of the brand. Of course, the reverse is also true. Brand sponsorships reinforce hockey in Canada, furthering interest in the sport. But the brutal back breaking hit by Boston Bruin Zdeno Chara on Montreal Canadien Max Pacioretty shows a deep wedge in “brand values”.

Yesterday, Air Canada pulled its $6 million NHL sponsorship of the NHL after the league failed to consider disciplinary action (beyond the in-game penalty) on Chara. As the Montreal Canadiens’s player lies almost motionless in hospital, there is a debate waging in marketing rooms, Parliament, sports bars and law-enforcement offices about what to do. Let’s be very clear. This is a national story that goes the heart of Canadian values - and has an interesting relationship to brands.

Canadiens and Canadians
Let’s begin with the 3 organizations involved in today’s headlines: Montreal Canadiens, Air Canada, and the NHL. The Montreal Canadiens, as the name suggests, is a Canadiana brand. Air Canada is Canada’s national airline. The NHL is, of course, the guardian of Canada’s national game. But the blurring of Canadiana and brands runs deeper than just business and hockey. At stake are the values of the brands, the players, and of the Canadian people. These public statements issued over the last 24 hours shows just how far apart views on the handling of the hit are.

Air Canada issued this statement:
“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…”

Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner responded:
Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that is their prerogative, just like it is the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don’t think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service.” (Globe and Mail, March 11)

The values of Air Canada and the NHL are clearly not in sync.


The NHL is the pre-eminent custodian of Canada’s game. It is the organization that makes the rule of fair play and sets the parameters around player conduct. These rules affect the “values” of the players. In its handling of this situation, the NHL is saying that serious injuries- even death can result from playing in the NHL game. The commentary is cool and rational.

"After a thorough review of the video I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly -- with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards. I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, that Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous...This was a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface. In reviewing this play, I also took into consideration that Chara has not been involved in a supplemental discipline incident during his 13-year NHL career." -

With the NHL's frigid “it’s part of the game” response, should we be surprised, then, that its player Chara (who also belongs to the same players' union as Pacioretty) has (at least to this point) not reached out to Max Pacioretty or his family? I find it hard to believe that any mainstream Canadian who participated in the back-breaking injury of another person – who would not be constantly expressing deep sorrow about the injury, immediately conveying sympathy to the victim’s family, and offering prayers of hope for a recovery. That’s the decent thing to do. These are the values of humanity that Air Canada expected. These are the values that the NHL and its players seem to miss. You see, it's not really about the suspension, this is about the values of sympathy, caring and respect. How unCanadian of the NHL, Canada's guardian of the national game.


  1. American reader here. Come to think of it, a lot of sports teams do the patriotic thing especially in the north east. Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia 76ers, NE Patriots, New York Liberty...

  2. Nhl is trying to go after the American audience by any means necessary ...even violence to generate media coverage of the sport which is badly needed in the states.After all that's where they have potential to make the most $$$.

  3. I have lost the respect of the NHL. It is time for Bettman to step down. Where is the NHLPA in all of this?

  4. ... And Bettman's contract was renewed for 5 years two days ago. Great post Bob. Fans in Long Island booed Chara yesterday by the way.

  5. The questions that need asking are:

    Would Air Canada have reacted the same way if it was a Boston player injured by one of the Montreal players?

    Would there be as many calls for criminal charges?

    Would parliament be involved at all if it had occurred in a game between Columbus and Atlanta?

    Nasty hits have been part of the game for a very long time. It's tough to separate the concerns for the game from pure "homerism", which applies to fans, corporations, and politicians. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that a politician tried to exploit an event for their own benefit.

  6. Has Bettman ever played a game of hockey in his life? This is what you get when you have a dribble lawyer leading the interpretation of rules.

  7. Nicely said, Bob. I guess common sense and decency are inversely proprotional to the number of zeroes on their paycheck. I wonder if it would have made a difference if someone had died?? Air Canada made a very bold move...will anyone else?? In today's society where our value system appears to be strongly associated with finances, it was encouraging to see the airline put their money where their mouth is. And who wouldn't want to be associated with a brand like that??!!??

  8. Here is a good take on it from marketing guru JF Belisle.

    Douger- Excellent points. I agree that it is far more of a "Canadiana" issue because of the team / turf where it is involved in.

    Lisa M- Via (among others) has expressed dissatisfaction with the NHL handling:

  9. I agree ,the Nhl got a lot of media coverage in the states with these violent hits that they would otherwise not receive.I remember a few years back they had a exhibition game in england and the fans gave two players that were fighting a standing O'