Chara returns to Montreal amid legal uncertainty
A cloud of legal uncertainty will still be lingering over Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara when he makes his return to Montreal this week, with no word on whether an on-ice incident might result in criminal charges.
Quebec's director of criminal prosecutions says there has been no decision on whether to lay charges over the brutal hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty last March.
Seven months removed from the hit that ended Pacioretty's season, a prosecutor said Wednesday that the case remains under study.
Crown prosecutor Jean-Pascal Boucher said Wednesday that he was aware the hulking Bruins defenceman would be playing in Montreal this weekend. But he couldn't say if a decision would come before then.
"For the case of Mr. Chara, there are no developments for now and the case is under review," said Boucher.
Chara is making his way for the first time this NHL season to Montreal, where he is intensely unpopular.
The massive defenceman shoved Pacioretty into a stanchion, breaking a vertebra and ending his season on March 8, receiving a game misconduct but no further suspension from the NHL.
Amid the ensuing public outcry, Quebec's director of criminal prosecutions ordered an investigation into the hit.
That office has been involved in a number of criminal prosecutions in recent years involving players in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The prosecutions that have made it before a judge involved stick incidents and one particularly vicious on-ice beating. None ended with jail time or criminal records for the offending players.
Some legal experts have deemed it highly unlikely that Chara would be prosecuted and say what happened in March falls outside the examples of previous Quebec cases.
"I think this is probably the most difficult one to bring forward as a prosecution," said Montreal criminal lawyer Steven Slimovitch. "All of the examples I can think of in the NHL or the QMJHL have been fighting incidents or clearly related to fighting — such as using the stick."
Before the hit, the Habs forward had been involved in a series of skirmishes with Chara during an escalating bitter rivalry on the ice.
Pacioretty initially said via social media that he was disgusted by the league's failure to suspend Chara, but later added that he disagreed with the decision of law enforcement to get involved.
Last June, he wrote on Twitter: "I hope Chara is NOT prosecuted. I have moved on from my incident and I hope everyone else can do the same."
The probe took months to complete, partly because of the Bruins' lengthy playoff run during which Montreal police delayed interviewing Chara until July.
Chara went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Bruins.
Pacioretty has fully recovered from a cracked vertebra and concussion and returned this season to the Canadiens; he has been one of the struggling team's rare strong performers.
Montreal police concluded their investigation in August, but the Crown warned it would take time to come to a final decision.
In this case, the Crown would need to prove Chara's intent to injure, beyond a reasonable doubt, Slimovitch said.
He said the Crown would also have to prove the hit went beyond what is the normally accepted level of violence that players consent to when they play a hockey game.
And ejection or suspension from a game doesn't make the act a criminal one.
Slimovitch said, for instance, that hockey players might accept that they will be bodychecked or shoved —but a stick smashed over the head is not expected, and would carry different legal consequences.
"The real place where the criminal court would step in would be,
'Has the action so far passed what is an acceptable level of violence in the sport that it must be sanctioned?'," he said.
Slimovitch said Chara's case would be difficult to prove in that respect.
"Can it be said that Chara knew where he was on the ice such that he used the stanchion as a weapon? You have to prove that," Slimovitch said.