Broken necks and idle threats

There’s nothing like a little hockey controversy to get every windbag in Canada fuming (this corner being no exception).

Of course, the smallest hockey transgression becomes colossal if it happens in Montreal. And so it’s little surprise that Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal Canadiens greenhorn Max Pacioretty has become the gift to the media that keeps on giving, the dead-in-the-ground story that just won’t die even days later, like some Charlie Sheen-esque zombie.

Won’t die, of course, until every last person, informed or no, speaks their mind. Enter Air Canada.

Air Canada Director of Marketing and Communications Denis Vandal apparently thought what a lot of people thought about the hit in Tuesday night’s game that left Pacioretty with a concussion and cracked vertebra: he thought Chara should have received a suspension, that the NHL needs to do more to protect its players and that the state Pacioretty was left in was, in a word, sickening.

What Vandal did that most people didn’t do was threaten to nullify millions of dollars worth of business agreements over the matter.

“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,” Vandal wrote in a letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, also sent to all six Canadian NHL clubs.

“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 is right to express his discomfort, of course. Violence in the NHL has been a hot-button issue this season, but concussions are no small matter. The more the issue is spoken about, the better.

And Vandal is right that if Air Canada is in fact “having difficulty rationalizing our sponsorship” of the NHL, the company can take its dollars elsewhere. As the chartered carrier of 11 NHL clubs, a major sponsor of the league and the naming rights holder of the arena of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Air Canada has a lot of dollars to move should it decide to do so.

Where Vandal is dead wrong is that he should not have quietly threatened to pull the plug on Air Canada’s dealings with the NHL; he should have just done it, or at least done it more loudly. Vandal sent his letter behind closed doors as a meek form of sabre-rattling that proved neither threatening nor effective and was likely not taken seriously.

Montreal-based Air Canada, band of hockey fans that they are, should well have known how easily closed-door dealings in the NHL are leaked to the Canadian press. The company has been tight-lipped ever since, while Bettman has challenged them to explore their options, and perhaps the NHL will explore theirs, since the league books hundreds of flights every year. Now Air Canada’s stumping has grown into an issue independent of Chara’s hit – something else for every Canadian blowhard to sound off on.

Professional sports sponsorships are contracts just like any else. And while companies can have reasons to break contracts, they should pick good ones. And they should keep things quiet.

It appears Air Canada wanted to shame the NHL. And it certainly appears that plan has backfired.


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1 Comment »

  1. All the more puzzling since Air Canada, an airline, is in the serious image-business of “no deaths, no injuries”, unlike, say, a flower-basket business or Tim Hortons.
    Air Canada’s business image and central message needs to be injury-free, just a jolly good pleasant experience.


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