As a woman who loves hockey more than she loves her own mother, I am often asked–by men and women alike–how a skinny little minny like me can adore such a big ol’ violent sport. The unspoken subtext here contains several threads that need to be unraveled. One thread has to do with ideas of femininity and what women seek out for entertainment: why aren’t I watching the much more muted, psychic violence of “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Real Housewives of someplace or other”? Why don’t I care about sex and its city and 2000$ shoes worn by horsey-faced divas with walk-in closets, instead of sweaty behemoths who pound at each other like extras on the set of “Quest for Fire”?
It needs to be said that, even for the hockey fan with the hardest core, this NHL season has brought to the fore some of the ugliest questions that persist at the heart of hockey’s warrior ethic. A steady succession of damaging head hits to the game’s peons, as well as its marquee stars, has underscored the unresolved paradox that defeats intelligent and consistent critique at every turn. What baffling inconsistencies do we encounter, as soon as we listen to the noises being made about head hits?
- If your team’s player receives a hit to the head, it’s a clear instance of head hunting, a cheap shot, a blindside hit, an example of the lack of respect that is destroying the game.
- If your team’s player is the one delivering a hit to someone’s head, it’s an instance of solid playing, it’s part of the game, an example of situations where the player seizing on the ice should have been responsible for his own safety and keeping his head up, or should be trying out for pairs figure skating because this is hockey, you emasculated, flaccid know-nothings!
Sadly, when a player actually breaks this code, as the Bruins’ Andrew Ference did in qualifying his teammate Daniel Paille’s shot to the head of the Stars Ray Sawada as a “bad hit,” the hockey world spins yet more inconsitent webs of nonsense into its rhetoric of toughness. Ference had these sane things to say:
“I mean it’s a bad hit, right? That’s what they’re trying to get rid of and you can’t be hypocritical about it when it happens to you, and say it’s fine when your teammate does it. It’s a hit they’re trying to get rid of.”
The following Saturday, on Hockey Night in Canada, yes, our national hockey broadcast, here’s what the pillars of hockey ethics had to say about Ference. “Keep it to yourself, Andrew Ference,’’ former Bruin (player and coach) Mike Milbury preached. “You can’t do it. You just can’t do it. It’s unacceptable.’’
Former gum-flinging, bench climbing Bruins coach Don Cherry offered this level-headed and temperate view: “I don’t care if your teammate is an ax murderer. What you’ve got to say to the guy, you tell him in the dressing room. You never go to the press like Ference did and say that was a bad hit….They don’t need a guy like Ference.’’
Thus we have a situation in which various people decry hits to the head, we see players leveled and knocked unconscious, their careers possibly ended before our eyes, their drooling, seizing, rag-dolled selves taken to the hospital, and everyone wringing their hands while the game seems to get even more violent with each passing week.
Head hits are like obesity: everyone thinks they’re wrong, disgusting, deadly, but contradictory approaches and stereotypes keep all the interested parties powerless.
Just as absurd is this year’s revival of so-called “old style” fighting during intense games. Large scrums, recurring explosions of fisticuffs and even, God help us, goalie fights have been on the menu lately. One goalie fight broke a starter’s face (Brent Johnson vs Rick Di Pietro), while another seemed like a friendly tussle meant to appease for the sake of appearances (Carey Price vs Tim Thomas). Earlier this season, superstars like Crosby (and the usually meek Mike Cammalleri) got in on the boxing, and now it seems that rivalries aren’t adequately played out unless hundreds of penalty minutes are racked up by random people swinging at each other.
The cliché about this kind of violence, of course, is that it is meant to help sell our sport to Americans, but one has to wonder about this explanation. Traditionally, our Southern friends get their bare-knuckled violence away from the field or the court, and sports fanatics aren’t accustomed to having boxing matches mixed into their baseball, basketball or football events. If fighting “sells” hockey, it’s not selling it to sports lovers, but to people who enjoy fisticuffs on Jerry Springer.
More importantly, by repeating this explanation for hockey’s violence, we hockey fans are doing harm to our sport, because we are refusing to acknowledge our own complicit part in these rituals of pointless fighting. The truth is that team GMs emphasize the aura of violent manliness required for fan approval. Who can forget Brian Burke’s airing of his own recipe for the virile special sauce that would sell the Leafs?
“We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play….I make no apologies for that. Our teams play a North American game. We’re throwbacks. It’s black-and-blue hockey. It’s going to be more physical hockey here than people are used to.”
Of course, that is a mythical image that this year’s Leafs are far from fulfilling, but it certainly reads like a snapshot of what hockey fans have been seeing lately: “throwbacks, black and blue hockey;” we could add “brain damage” hockey to the mix.
Yet the question remains: what does all this fighting bring to the game? How does it enhance the actual level of competition between elite athletes?
Until Canadian and American hockey fans, journalists and commentators are willing to truly address this question and answer it with honestly, until we’re ready to set aside every cliché we have been hearing and repeating, and until we’re ready to actually ponder the violent heart of our sport, there will be blood, and brain damage, and broken faces, and we’ll continue to wonder why.