Major NHL sponsor Air Canada threatened to withdraw its sponsorship unless the league moves to impose sanctions to reduce potential serious injuries such as the one that injured Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty this week.
The airline sent a letter to NHL officials, including commissioner Gary Bettman and his associate Bill Daly, expressing its concern over the increase in dangerous hits to players' heads, and reportedly demanded "immediate" and "serious" action on the matter.
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"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," Air Canada warned in the letter.
The letter came from Denis Vandal, Air Canada's director of marketing communications.
The airline is a major sponsor of the league, which has six Canadian franchises. Air Canada has owned the naming rights for the building where the Toronto Maple Leafs play since it opened in 1999.
Pacioretty suffered a broken vertebra and concussion after Boston Bruins defenceman hit him into the boards and drove his head into a stanchion supporting the glass around the ice. Bettman called the injury to Pacioretty horrific, but said it's part of the game. He also suggested the league can find new sponsors if an old one pulls out.
"Air Canada is a great brand, as is the National Hockey League," Bettman said at a news conference in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. "If they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative, just like it's the prerogative of our clubs that fly Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don't think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service."
Parliamentarians raced to express their concern over the play on Wednesday and Thursday, and Montreal police confirmed Thursday that a criminal investigation will be opened.
Other league sponsors were less vocal Thursday, but several issued statements confirming their concern.
"As Canada's Hockey Bank, Scotiabank's role in hockey is based on the love of the sport in Canada," Scotiabank said Thursday. "Scotiabank will continue to work with the NHL, and the NHLPA to educate future generations of hockey players on respect, safety and team work, and we do this through skills clinics at a minor hockey level."
"Our approach is to be very active in the educational area on concussion and drive moral passion on this issue."
Iconic coffee and donut chain Tim Hortons Inc. also issued a statement, saying the company "encourages the NHL, the teams and general managers and the NHL Players' Association to continue to work towards addressing concerns with head injuries."