Letting boys be boys is what sent Orpik to the hospital

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Photo from The National Post.

Another cheap shot. Another player leaving the ice on a stretcher. Another apology.  Boys will be boys, I guess. So when will we hold boys and men to a higher standard of masculinity (or at least a different one)?  Or are we really okay with the status quo?

Tonight, Shawn Thornton threw an unwitting Brooks Orpik to the ice and then punched him in the face a few times before Orpik had to be stretchered off the ice.  Thornton received a match penalty and luckily Orpik will  be travelling back to Pittsburgh with the team. To read the NHL.com report of the incident is like reading the summary of a pre-season game.

Thornton and Orpik became involved after Bruins forward Brad Marchand, while on the ice, took a knee to the head from the Penguins forward James Neal.

Thornton was assessed a match penalty; he appeared to pull Orpik down and punch him while he was on the ice.

Orpik was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was alert and conscious, the Penguins announced.  Orpik returned from the hospital and will travel with the team back to Pittsburgh, coach Dan Bylsma said after the game.

It is so matter of fact; it reads as if this is an every game occurrence. I mean, I get it, it’s supposed to be an informative article but there is not one ounce of rage, concern, or fear in this article from the league. In my opinion, every time incidents like this happen the NHL should be very afraid.  Even CBS Sports writer, Chris Peters, writes “This infraction will definitely draw the attention of the league and could lead to a lengthy suspension for Thornton.  This is an outright attack on Orpik that had seemingly disastrous results.  There’s no place for this in the game or anywhere for that matter.”  At a minimum the NHL could have at least thrown in a token statement like “this incident will be taken very seriously by the Department of Player Safety”.  For a professional league that is under huge scrutiny with regards to player safety a little emotion would be welcome, even if fake.

I expect that many will share the view of this National Post commenter:

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We throw our hands up in exasperation and claim it wasn’t a hockey play but it is an understandable act.  Really? Are we going through this again? Sadly, I have little hope that this incident will change anything in the game of hockey.  But we seriously need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if THIS the kind of stuff that we want discussed on Sportscentre when compared to other sports? NHL hockey has always had a hard time keeping up with the other major league sports and now it has to compete with NASCAR as well.  NASCAR, people! The greatest game on earth can’t compete with stock cars going around and around on an oval track?  It is fine and dandy to refer to this, and the Bertuzzi-Moore incident, and the McSorely-Brashear incident as disgraceful but they are disgraces that we condone because we allow the mentality of vigilante justice and fighting as fundamental aspects of the game.  We praise these men for their gritty performances and and then chastise them for crossing a line in the sand.  Fact of the matter is, if Thornton did what he did to Orpik on the street he would be arrested but because he did it on the ice it’s a game misconduct.  We allow it because we paid to see the show and just because the whistle blows doesn’t mean that the show stops – it just means that the play stops.

Jones, Steward & Sunderman (1996) explain that the NHL considers violence a “‘goods characteristic’, an attribute of the product deliberately fostered by teams to generate revenue in their drive to maximize profits” (p.231-232).  While Atkinson and Young (2008) argue that the media commonly produces the aggressor as the victim and “publicly frame[s] violence in the game as noncriminal, socially unthreatening and rare – and therefore tolerable” (p.173).  Then I ask, at what point does rare become common?  Is there a number that the NHL is waiting to hit? Is there a violent incident quota that we are trying to reach before we realize that the culture of the game must be changed? If we shrug our shoulders and say “boys will be boys” every time something like this happens then we might as well throw away the Department of Player Safety.  There is no point trying to keep players safe if you are also willing to use them as pawns in a game where fighting is not allowed yet rewarded.  How do we penalize Thornton for doing something outside of the rules when much of the game’s culture exists outside of the written rule book?  How can we teach young hockey boys that what is valued in the game is toughness, aggression, and intimidation and then turn around and say but don’t be as tough, aggressive or intimidating as Thornton?  What Thornton demonstrated tonight (and Bertuzzi and McSorely and others before him) was merely a manifestation of an extremely confusing and hypocritical form of masculinity that inherently encourages violence while parading behind an imaginary code of honour.  While the League may try to “send a message” to Thornton that his behaviour was unacceptable, the length of suspension will be irrelevant.  After all, Thornton was just trying to “send a message” to Orpik – his behaviour was unacceptable.

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Works Cited:

Atkinson, M. & Young, K. (2008).  Deviance and social control in sport.  Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Jones, J.C.H., Stewart, K.G., & Sunderman, R.  (1996).  From the arena into the street: Hockey violence, economic incentives, and public policy.  American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 55(2), 231-243.

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About courtneyszto
Public sociologist and tempered radical in training. Sports is my life. I recently graduated from the University of Toronto with my Masters in Exercise Science. My Master's thesis focused on corporate social responsibility in professional sports, international development and gender equality. My undergraduate degree is Bachelor of Human Kinetics in Sport Management. I am a Vancouver Canucks fan through and through. I have worked in event management, outdoor education, the golf industry, and coached tennis. Soon to be PhD student.

3 Responses to Letting boys be boys is what sent Orpik to the hospital

  1. Pingback: Weekly Links: Reaction to Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik; Big news in Canadian women’s hockey; Academic conferences on hockey research; and more | Hockey in Society

  2. Joe Pack says:

    You said it in this article, Courtney: we encourage players to play on the edge but then expect them to reign in all aggression and make level-headed decisions.

    I’m not defending Thornton. What he did was indefensible. But what part of the game are you asking to be removed here? We will find out Thornton’s punishment Friday and the hockey world expects the punishment to be severe. What else can you ask for? This wasn’t a fight. It was one player’s loss of control in a heated game. Can you legislate away a century of eye-for-an-eye behaviour? In real life, yes. But it’s a game, and you said it here as well: if this was carried out on the street, Thornton would be jailed. True, but on the street, rarely is one driven to aggression by body checks, slashes, verbal abuse, a contract that demands victory over the person next to you…and so on. It’s the legal, physical behaviour on ice that demands players react physically (however bullish and stupid that behaviour may mutate into).

    I appreciate the concern on your part, but this feels like a knee-jerk reaction to hockey violence that has been heard again and again. I see no furthering of the argument against it here. Again, I won’t defend Thornton, but I want to see the push against this behaviour from writers to be more fleshed out.

    I ask again, exactly what part of hockey, based on this incident, would you change? Because, hypothetically, retribution between players will always remain, fighting or no fighting.

    • courtneyszto says:

      Hi Joe! Thanks for reading and commenting. You are right that on the street we don’t usually encounter such aggravations but what I find interesting is why we also separate hockey from other sports. As if in basketball, rugby, football and soccer there aren’t contracts that expect performance and agitators who purposely try to get under your skin. But only in hockey is it acceptable to square off with an opposing player and fight it out, or in Orpik’s case, back down from a fight and have retaliation loom over your head…which is ironically more dangerous than accepting a fight out right.

      So I guess what I am advocating for is the end of this ridiculous notion that fighting curbs violence in the game, which all statistical and social analyses debunk. If you have ever talked about hockey with non-North Americans one of the first questions that comes up is – why do they fight? Does one team get more points for winning a fight? Does one team lose points for losing a fight? How does it factor in the game? And all hockey fans have to respond with is: its sends a message, it’s supposed to detour further violence… it’s how the game goes.

      More fundamentally, I am advocating for a change in hockey masculinity that says you are expected to fight when the situation presents itself. As I alluded to earlier, accepting a fight is bad enough (it makes the sport look primitive) but the absurd part is that not fighting will bring about retaliation. We continue to treat “bad decisions” like Thornton’s like anomalies and individual problems, when in fact the culture fosters an environment for violence. I’m not saying that Thornton isn’t responsible for his actions but the sport and league are also culpable.

      If you are looking for a practical answer, my opinion is implementing a game ejection for fighting and instigating as the minimum.

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