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Joe Van Acker: Indefensible

April 3, 2013

Hockey’s toughest tradition is harder to support than ever.

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Image from Flickr via Håkan Dahlström

By Joe Van Acker

The answers to simple questions can often bring momentous changes. One such question for the National Hockey League: How does the NHL promote safety and allow players to smash each other in the face with their fists? A paradox, to be sure. But because the answer to that question (it’s not possible) is an unpopular one, the issue is unresolved.

League Commissioner Gary Bettman is quick to note that fighting isn’t technically “allowed” in the NHL. Yet it does take place on a regular basis, and it’s rare that punishment exceeds a few minutes in the penalty box.

It’s free-flowing sport, with few stoppages, and players are equipped with sticks. As Calvin observed to Hobbes while holding a croquet mallet, “the temptation to misuse these things is just awful.”

Fighting is a remnant of the sport’s humble origins on frozen lakes and ponds, but not a vestigial one. It’s free-flowing sport, with few stoppages, and players are equipped with sticks. As Calvin observed to Hobbes while holding a croquet mallet, “the temptation to misuse these things is just awful.” It falls on certain players, known commonly as enforcers, to act as deterrents, sending a message and establishing a physical presence for their team. The league itself proving incapable of protecting players from cheap shots and “stick work,” they constitute an unofficial police presence. The NHL accepts that players are occasionally going to absorb some punishment for the greater good. Essentially, if you wanna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs.

***

The benefits of breaking NHL rules on fighting, not unlike certain regulations in the financial world, seem to far outweigh the costs of getting caught. Take a swing on somebody in the NHL and you get only a slap on the wrist from the league. The official “five for fighting” policy (so named for the ensuing five-minute penalty) was instituted in 1922, and while there have since been numerous tweaks to the rule, it’s been the unofficial “code” of the players, not mandates from the league, maintaining a sense of propriety.

Fights are generally agreed to before they begin, and rarely is an opponent hit when he’s down (a clear violation of the code). There are stories of fights coming to a halt due to dislocated shoulders, or other injuries that leave one man at a disadvantage. This gentlemanly twist to fighting in the NHL is part of the reason it has endured. The code suggests that these are organized fights with clear conventions, not unsupervised barroom brawls that might spiral out of control.

But there’s a reason enforcers are also called “goons,” despite the civil impulse of the code. They’re usually not great skaters, puck handlers, passers, or goal scorers. Their primary purpose is, again, to intimidate. Take the career of Marty McSorley as an example of how teams put enforcers to use.

McSorley was one of the NHL’s premiere enforcers from the mid-1980’s through the 1990’s. At 6’2”, 235 lbs. with a square jaw and a mullet for the ages, McSorley’s presence on the ice allowed Wayne Gretzky to become the greatest player of all time. He was so successful in his role as Gretzky’s bodyguard that they were traded together, as a pair, from the Oilers to the Kings in 1988. Speaking in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Last Gladiators, Joe Fitzgerald of the Boston Herald put it simply: “If there wasn’t a Marty McSorley, there wouldn’t have been a Wayne Gretzky.”

McSorley’s career ended in 2000, after he bludgeoned Donald Brashear (another enforcer) with his stick when Brashear refused to fight. Exactly the kind of stick work that the enforcer’s presence was meant to eliminate. McSorley was tried and convicted of assault in Canada and never played another game.

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It’s certainly possible that Wayne Gretzky wouldn’t have been the player he was without McSorley watching his back, fighting on his behalf. The idea, though, that the greatest player in a generation would be incapable of reaching his full potential without protection from a bodyguard is unique to hockey. It speaks to the league’s inability to protect its players and enforce its own rules. The NHL’s brand of the game has evolved to incorporate fighting as an integral component, so goons have become a firmly entrenched part of the culture.

And to be clear, fighting in the NHL is a cultural phenomenon. While the European leagues and Olympics punish fighting with immediate ejections, and even multi-game suspensions, hockey in the U.S. and Canada has always been a bit rougher around the edges. The rink is smaller in the NHL, making the game faster and, therefore, harder hitting. Tensions run high and fighting is often defended as a sort of release valve. But the international rejection of fighting proves that the game can exist without players knocking each other out.

Fights in baseball and basketball are met with fines and suspensions; even the NFL, for all the bodily danger inherent in that sport, won’t tolerate throwing punches.

Neither do other professional sports in the U.S. permit fighting. Fights in baseball and basketball are met with fines and suspensions; even the NFL, for all the bodily danger inherent in that sport, won’t tolerate throwing punches. Of course McSorley’s attack on Brashear shocked players and fans alike. But the shocking thing wasn’t, as it would have been in other leagues, that one player lashed out physically at another. It was only the degree of the violence that galled. So why the disparity?

Hockey has always been a violent game. Players crash into the walls and each other, they’re hit by sticks, they block pucks with their bodies. An overwhelming majority (98 percent) of the players themselves oppose a ban on fighting. Hockey is a hard sport for hard athletes; teeth are disposable and safety is secondary to tradition. Helmets, for example, didn’t become mandatory until 1979. But the new rule allowed any player who had signed a contract prior to its instatement to continue playing without one. Craig MacTavish did so until 1997.

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To its credit, the NHL has been ahead of the curve in addressing concussions, requiring baseline concussion testing, mandating softer shoulder pads, and penalizing hits that target the head. Ultimately, though, these new rules and safety measures are at odds with the tacit acceptance of fighting. Implicit in these changes is an acknowledgement that blows to the head are detrimental to a player’s health. And still, the NHL is unwilling to eliminate fighting and adopt the “international” style of play. Hockey players are always going to suffer concussions, with fighting or without it. The game is fast and ice is hard. But that is all the more reason to eliminate the unnecessary risks. It’s not clear, though, what has to happen for the NHL to take that leap.

Bad knees at 35, back pain that never really goes away, elbows that predict the weather; these injuries are considered “part of the deal.” But with increasing awareness of players’ post-professional lives has come increasing squeamishness about fighting in the NHL.

What is clear is that a sudden ban on fighting isn’t likely to come soon. Three NHL enforcers died untimely deaths in 2011. Two by suicide, and the third, Derek Boogaard, of an accidental overdose of prescription pain pills, the result of an addiction that began during treatment for injuries sustained in hockey fights. There was a burst of media attention following Boogaard’s death, when examination of his brain revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive deterioration of the brain caused by repeated blows to the head. CTE was also found in the brains of NFL players David Duerson and Junior Seau, both of whom committed suicide. Seau shot himself in the heart to preserve his brain for study.

The hardships pro jocks endure post-retirement have traditionally been viewed as occupational hazards, or red badges of courage. Bad knees at 35, back pain that never really goes away, elbows that predict the weather; these injuries are considered “part of the deal.” But with increasing awareness of players’ post-professional lives has come increasing squeamishness about fighting in the NHL.

Blows to the head can reduce awesome physical specimens to charity cases. Sadly, it has taken some untimely deaths, but head trauma in sports is getting attention. Melissa Segura described the difficulty of living with a former NFL player in Sports Illustrated: Disappearances, late-night confusion, stabbing head pain, men in their early 50’s, incapable of caring for themselves. As we become increasingly aware of the risks athletes subjected to head trauma face, and the challenges they endure later in life, a ban on fighting might become more plausible in the NHL. But it hasn’t yet.

***

David Remnick, in his Muhammad Ali retrospective King of the World, saved this for the epilogue: “There is beauty in [boxing]—there is terrible beauty in combat, too, particularly for the noncombatant—but if you meet enough former boxers, if you try to decipher their punch-drunk talk, you begin to wonder. What beauty is worth this?”

There is beauty in hockey, as there is in all sports. It is a beauty that captivates us, and one that binds the athletes to a higher standard. They are idealized reflections of the physical potential of humanity. The way we treat them is similarly a reflection of ourselves.

To denounce violence flies in the face of the NHL’s tradition of toughness. Critics of fighting are often portrayed as effete handwringers, afraid of a little blood, lamenting a societal lapse. But you don’t have to be a vegan or a Montessori teacher to find it distasteful. Fighting is exciting, and (for some of us) it’s fun to watch. That doesn’t make it acceptable; that doesn’t justify the cost.

Enforcer culture in the NHL exemplifies the endemic disregard we have for our athletes, whatever the sport. Most of them aren’t superstars. A lot of them are hurried through high school and college, chasing the professional dream, only to be manipulated into making bad investments with their deceptively large paychecks. They live in the cruel spotlight of public perception. They sacrifice the best years of their lives to entertain us. Whether it’s for the love of the game, for money, or for a shot at immortality, that sacrifice should not be in vain. It shouldn’t lead to depression, addiction, or suicide.

The NHL bucking tradition and taking fighting out of the game won’t happen anytime soon, and if it does eventually happen, it’s sure to be unpopular. But we know what getting punched in the head for a living can do to a person, however tough, strong, or talented. There’s nothing beautiful about that.

Joe Van Acker is a journalist in Chicago.

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2 comments for Joe Van Acker: Indefensible

  1. Comment by Karen on April 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    I like ice hockey, I even understand most of the rules (except offsides, but, hey, who’s counting?). Head trauma is not restricted to boxing and ice hockey. I was acquainted with a former NFL player, one Mr. Dalton, who played for the Baltimore Colts, a long time ago. He could walk with a cane, but was largely intellectually incapacitated, and needed to be driven everywhere he wanted to go. What a terrible price he paid for the so-called privilege of being a NFL football player. How about you take on THAT brutal sport. Football injuries make hockey injuries look like fun!

  2. Comment by Joe on April 19, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for the comment, Karen. I highly recommend Melissa Segura’s article in SI, which is mentioned in this story. You can check it out here: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1205982/1/index.htm.

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