DALLAS -- In an unusually public faceoff between a pro sports league and one of its major sponsors, Air Canada has threatened to pull support for the National Hockey League, saying that violent play on the ice hurts the airline's brand image.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman responded Thursday that his teams could retaliate by deciding to stop using Air Canada for charter flights, an important source of revenue for the airline.
The exchange between the commissioner and the biggest airline in hockey-mad Canada came after a Montreal Canadiens player suffered a concussion and cracked neck vertebra Tuesday night when a Boston player knocked him headfirst into a glass partition.
The Boston player, team captain Zdeno Chara, was ejected from the game but not suspended or fined.
On Wednesday, Air Canada's director of marketing, Denis Vandal, wrote to Bettman saying that the airline was considering withdrawing its sponsorship unless the NHL took immediate action including "serious suspensions" for players who cause serious injuries.
"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 the letter, which was first reported by the Ottawa Sun.
Bettman was in Washington on Thursday to meet with lawmakers. He said the injury to Montreal's Max Pacioretty was a horrific accident but he stood by the decision not to suspend Chara, and he responded to the Air Canada threat.
If Air Canada decides "to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative," Bettman said, "just like it's 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."
An Air Canada spokesman declined repeated requests for information about its charter services to NHL teams, but the flights are extensive.
American law bars foreign airlines from operating flights entirely within the United States, but Air Canada enjoys a rare exemption so it can carry hockey teams on road trips from one U.S. city to another.
In 2009, the Obama administration moved to end Air Canada's flights entirely within the U.S. The airline filed a lawsuit in Washington to block the move, and both sides eventually settled in a deal that allowed the flights to continue.
At the time, Air Canada provided charter flights for all six NHL teams based in Canada and expected to handle four U.S.-based teams.