If you can’t beat ‘em (up), join ‘em

Yesterday, the Vancouver Canucks traded prized rookie Cody Hodgson to the Buffalo Sabres for prized prospect Zack Kassian. (Other players were involved, but let’s call this a straight up deal. In fact, for some commentators, this was a chance to reminisce over the ‘good old days’ of hockey trades, when ‘dumping salary’ suggested some kind of scatological economics).

Basically, the Canucks moved a talented, up-and-coming scorer for a tough, bruising up-and-coming power forward. (Not unlike the Montero for Pineda swap that the Yankees and Mariners made this offseason. Sorry, I couldn’t do any more posts on this site without talking baseball).

The point is that this trade can be considered a swap of valuable assets, with each player demonstrating tremendous upside, and even though Canucks’ fans seem to be upset about moving Hodgson – who was clearly growing in popularity – many observers have this deal at worst a push, and maybe even squarely in the Canucks favour.

Before I go any further, three caveats:

1)     I’m a lifelong Canucks fan. None of what follows is objective.

2)     There are several possible explanations for the trade (i.e. Hodgson was buried behind two elite centres and deserved more than 3rd line minutes. There were even rumours, according to the Vancouver Sun, that he may have quietly demanded to be traded).

3)     We’ll never know for sure what Canucks’ management was thinking or strategizing through this deal. Anything they tell the media is just what they think the media – not to mention the fans – need to know.

Yet, with all that said, this trade signifies something profound to me: the continued capitulation in the NHL of speed and skill to size and brawn. Even though player safety and Brendan Shanahan are supposedly top of mind, NHL teams still need to be able to physically dominate their opponents, as much as skate, pass and shoot better. That the Canucks may be going this route gives me pause. Read more of this post

Brian Burke’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

When Kanye West dropped a bomb on the musical world in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, music critics lost their collective shit trying to process, internalize and communicate what they had just absorbed. So sprawling and epic, so contradictory, so unabashed in its assessments was the album that it could really only be accepted as an actual Dark Fantasy. And Kanye could only be lauded for having the guts, the audacity, the talent and, dare I say it, the truculence to put it all out there.

All of which means that Brian Burke is now the Kanye West of hockey. There, I said it.

This week Burke unleashed a press conference on the hockey world that was so spectacularly abrasive that it cut right to the heart of the issue. Watching it was not unlike watching Louis CK’s sitcom (just named by TIME as the best tv show of 2011); we recognize the form but not the content in that form. Nor the aesthetic. And as a result, it penetrates to a degree that we’re unprepared for. I finished watching Burke’s presser with that same degree of unsettled admiration – and slightly drooling tongue – that I get from watching Louis.

If you haven’t seen Burke’s performance, go watch it. Then read Mark Norman’s post on this site for an incisive analysis. If you’re still interested after all that, here is what it said to me:

Fundamentally, Burke reminded us in no uncertain terms that professional hockey is designed to be a fantasy world. A serious one at that. We are often led to believe that sports like hockey are some kind of microcosm of society, or a world in which life’s lessons are learned, or even a place where eternal themes are played out. Y’know, ‘sport is the best reality show’ and all that (crap). Burke ground those theories into a pulp by making an impassioned and eloquent plea to maintain the unapologetic exceptionalism of hockey culture. He told the rest of us that the world professional hockey has carved out – a spectacularly and uniformly gendered world of character, pride and honour – can no longer maintain the barriers and boundaries that it has painstakingly established.

(Hypothetical exchange)

Outraged citizen – ‘You can’t hit someone in a bar and not go to jail! So why can you hit someone in a hockey game and it’s fine?’  (BTW – I’ve said this to students in university classes on more than one occasion)

Brian Burkes of the world – ‘Because this is hockey. It’s a dark, fantasy world reserved for a few. You’re invited to watch, but don’t tell us what to do. We’ve made an alternative reality where we understand the rules. And you’ve loved the spectacle of it for decades.’

Yet, now the curtain is being drawn back (Why? Because of concussions? Derek Boogard? Crosby’s brain? I’m not sure we can pinpoint it) and Burke wants us to know that he’s not in a position to keep it pulled tight. His description and treatment of this yellow brick road that he now finds himself on was truly captivating. He openly explored and embraced the tension between the pressure to keep up with trends within the game versus the costs to the sanctity and romance of hockey logic. He nobly (and contradictorily) re-committed himself to player safety and protection by refusing to play off fighting against brain health in some kind of best-of-seven morality series. He acknowledged and openly cheered for the incredible excitement of NHL hockey in 2012, with so many young superstars whose skill sets are revolutionizing styles of play. He also called out the supposed moral superiority of the NHL’s current justice system in which the league polices players and tells players they are not able to do it for themselves. And he did it all with an eloquence and gravitas that can only mean that it is now officially impossible to watch Coach’s Corner ever again.

(It also must be noted that he pulled the whole thing off ‘wearing’ a perfectly placed un-tied tie that somehow signaled that this was a special occasion. As if it was some kind of  ‘last minute’ meeting in the biggest, most prestigious hockey market in the world to announce the demotion of a fourth liner to the minors. F’ing brilliant.)

And the last, but by no means least, accomplishment is that in 10 minutes Brian Burke forced the anti-fighting crowd – the ‘Greenpeacers’ in his parlance – to re-evaluate the stability of their collective soapbox. I know because I’m one of them. Case in point: I wanted so desperately for the Canucks to win the Cup last year not just because they’re my team but also because it became for me an ideological battle between the Big Bad Bruins and the sweet skating Swedes. Eventually, though, it also became a series in which true hatred rained down around the villainous archetypes of the hockey world that are Brad Marchand and Max Lapierre. And Burke is warning us that an unintended consequence of the new NHL could be the continued ascension of these characters. Can fighting actually prevent any of this, particularly given that the referees in the Bruins/Canucks series were so clearly ineffective when it came to doing so? I don’t know. Burke has made me think about it, though.

I am de-stabilized. I know that the code has always ostensibly been built on respect. Respect for violence, pain, sacrifice, and retribution. (Not exactly the top of the dominant moral hierarchy). So I dismissed the code, and still largely do.  It wasn’t until Brian Burke called my attention to this twisted fantasy world of hockey with such conviction that I was willing to think it over in any intellectual way.

Take that, Kanye.

Is Sidney Crosby Breaking the Rules?

In the October 3rd issue of Sports Illustrated, David Epstein and Michael Farber wrote a story about Sidney Crosby (‘Getting Inside the Head of Sidney Crosby’). Not surprisingly, given that Crosby hasn’t played in months, the piece focused on The Kid’s efforts to recover from post-concussion symptoms and re-join the Pittsburgh Penguins (who actually seem to be doing just fine without him, at least for now).

The gist of the article leapt out at me. Apparently, Crosby has been receiving experimental, or at least unproven, treatment from a chiropractor named Ted Carrick who uses something called ‘chiropractic neurology’ to treat patients with neurological damage. (The backbone is apparently connected to the head-bone). The particulars of Carrick’s technique aren’t important here (it’s mostly eye exercises according to the article), nor is the fact that the approach tends to be rejected as (horror!) anecdotal by the peer-reviewed crowd. What is significant, though, is that the article focuses on the lengths to which Crosby is now willing to go to get back on the ice after suffering two head shots in four days in January 2011.

Which brings me to another article in the same issue (FYI – it takes a long time for my SI subscription to be delivered to the UK. I’m reading October issues in November. Luxury problems, I know, but just in case you were wondering…). In the scorecard section of Oct 3, Dick Friedman offers an entertaining polemic on antiquated rules in sport (‘Get Me Rewrite’). Why, for example, shouldn’t the ground be able to cause a fumble or shouldn’t there be a serve clock in tennis or a bigger diamond in softball? Interesting questions to be sure as they remind us that the rules of sports are not only governed and managed by living, breathing people, but are also often antiquated left-overs from previous eras. This argument may not stand as a defense of instant replay in baseball (it’s just wrong!) but it does illustrate that those in charge of sports are also in charge of the rules of sports and should be examining, updating and tweaking all of the time.

So why then, did SI choose to focus on the efforts that Crosby is making to heal himself and not on the efforts that should be underway to prevent similar head shots to other players?  Of course, on the one hand, there has been significant media coverage of the NHL’s ongoing negotiations – if not incompetence – in trying to find a middle ground for rules governing hits to the head. On the other, though, the chasm in such reporting is any direct or repeated call for a radical rethinking of the sanctity of hitting in NHL hockey. In Friedman’s column, the examples are funny. Yet, something tells me that Crosby and his family aren’t laughing about the effects of the current contact rules in the NHL. And neither should current and future players who are just one knock away from long, boring spells in dark rooms with no TV.

I don’t dislike hitting. That isn’t the argument. I cheer just like the rest when someone gets blown up on the ice. But I’ve come to realize that it’s just not worth it. It’s not worth it because we’re left watching David Steckel and Victor Hedman after they crunched Crosby when we should be watching (arguably) the best player of our generation skate into his prime. We’re left with collisions orchestrated by middling NHLers instead of the speed and skill of true superstars. And we’re left telling ourselves that players who don’t have their heads up at centre ice deserve to be concussed even though we know it’s a classic rationalization for a problem that we’d rather didn’t exist.

And, not insignificantly, we’re left with Sidney Crosby being left to fend for himself by seeking advice from self-taught brain doctors.

Frankly, the question of whether anyone deserves to be concussed illustrates the depth of the problem and the intractability of the issue. Just change the rules! What are we waiting for? Make rules that put the best players on the ice and allow them to do all of the things that make hockey great. At least make any contact to the head severely punishable. No, it won’t mean the end of concussions, but it will mean the end of some concussions, and importantly it will mean the end of concussions that are so maddeningly preventable.

At the very least let’s ask ourselves the obvious questions. Is Sidney Crosby really breaking the rules by going rogue in his medical treatment? Or are the rules of hockey breaking Sidney Crosby?

Arron Asham and the Impossible Hockey Fight

What Arron Asham did was ‘classless.’ This is according to no less an authority than Arron Asham. After knocking out Jay Beagle with a vicious (but fairly standard) haymaker in an NHL fight on Thursday, Asham issued an immediate mea culpa after the game. His apology made reference to the way that he added insult to Beagle’s injury in the form of a sleeping gesture made on the way to the penalty box. Not surprisingly, the story blew up, coming fresh as it did on the heels of Don Cherry’s recent controversial defense of fighting, the ongoing ‘efforts’ of the NHL to curtail headshots, and Sidney Crosby’s ongoing efforts ever to play again.

Everyone involved, or even just watching, wishes Beagle a speedy recovery. But not enough is being made of the journey through contradictions and illogic that Asham went on in a manner of hours during and after the game. Let’s recap.

First, he did his ‘job’ – that is, he used a fight to deter further violence against his teammates and, in his own words, ‘to get my bench going’ – and he followed this up by celebrating the successful execution of the task that is his stead while the crowd went wild. Then he apparently realized (and remarkably quickly if you were following the overall narrative in real time) that in the current culture of NHL hockey, ‘celebrating’ the act of concussing another player is bad PR, and so he offered himself up to a kangaroo court of hockey media so that we good folks would know that this is not the kind of person he is.

And there’s the rub. Yes, the apology was for the injury but it was mostly for the insensitive gesture that showed up Beagle while he lay passed out on the ice. (By the way, how does Nick Kypreos feel when he sees that kind of thing?). So the apology was Asham’s way of saying that he is NOT the kind of person that does that.

Yet, apparently he IS the kind of person that beats the crap out of others for his purposes and those of his teammates.

The inconsistency is so obvious that it can almost get lost, what with grown men bleeding from their ears. Or, put another way, it’s hard to see the bare knuckles for the goons. (Awkward metaphors? Sure, but read on). Fighting seems to be fine, this narrative says, as long as said fights do not lead to injury or, worse yet, embarrass or emasculate the loser.

Wait, what?

What kind of fight would be OK, then? And how do commentators like Aaron Ward reconcile their ‘respect’ for players like Asham, players who do the job that no one else wants, but then – and please excuse the hockey colloquialism – proceed to throw these players under the bus because they buy in to the job.

Also notable is that the issue that Asham took on in his apology – seriously, did someone pull him aside after the game? ‘Dude, this thing is gonna blow up. You gotta get out ahead of it.’ – is qualitatively different than the discussion of head shots, suspensions and enforcer culture that has been so visceral and confrontational in recent weeks. This wasn’t about Asham’s psychological health, or even really about Beagle’s physical health as far as I can tell. It wasn’t about retired enforcers like Chris Nilan and Stu Grimson defending the nobility of the role. It was the fact that Asham’s quality and effectiveness as a fighter undercut (or was it a jab?) all of the efforts that the NHL has made and is still making to try and project an image of a civilized and respectable league and sport. I almost hate to bring it up but it’s not unlike Todd Bertuzzi’s destruction of Steve Moore in that it exposed the raw underbelly of NHL vengeance and violence for all to see. And the NHL can ill afford that right now.

It may seem strange, but I feel for Arron Asham most of all. What was, or is, he supposed to do exactly? His raison d’etre is pugilism. He has more than 80 fights recorded by the loving souls who keep track of such things. And he seems to be really good at it. If the issue is that he shouldn’t beat people up as a way to motivate the crowd and his team, then the move should be to ban fighting. Instead, we had the hockey equivalent of a public flogging in response to the hockey equivalent of a Roman Circus.

So please spare us the spectacle of hockey fighters who now have to offer public confessions for being hockey fighters. It’s not fair to Jay Beagle. And it does an even bigger disservice to Arron Asham because it makes hockey fights impossible even as they remain firmly part of the game.

The Unbearable Lightness of Sean Avery

Sean Avery has transformed before our very eyes. From the tough guy, bad boy of the NHL, known for his cheap shots, on-ice antics, and off-ice dalliances with femme fatales – and provocations of the masculinity of other NHLers in comparison to his own – Avery has somehow turned into a Renaissance man: fashion intern, cultural critic and gay rights activist.

That last title is not insignificant, as his public support for gay marriage in the state of New York ostensibly parallels broader shifts in North American pro sports towards the combating of homophobia. As leagues like the NHL and NFL and even the NCAA speak out about the inappropriateness of anti-gay rhetoric and in-game slurs, Avery seems now to have been ahead of the curve. Or at least leading the pack, a pack still populated by some dunder-headed bigots who don’t read LZ Granderson or know what John Amaechi is doing for the forthcoming London Olympics in 2012.

It’s been a fascinating metamorphosis for the Rangers provocateur. Avery, seemingly over night, has somehow come to represent the inevitable enlightenment of pro sports, where the last bastions of masculinity are now beginning to realize the error of their homophobic ways and come to understand that even the rink is off limits when you wish you had just one last place to drop an f-bomb. (The three letter kind, not the four).

This all apparently came to a head this week when Wayne Simmonds of the Flyers allegedly tossed a homophobic slur at Avery during a pre-season game. Simmonds, while not formally punished by the NHL, came under significant criticism almost immediately, and certainly ironically, afterwards. (Ironically because Simmonds himself was still in the middle of dealing with his own nasty experiences with hatred after a banana was thrown at him during a game. Simmonds is Black. Avery, we assume, is not gay).

This incident – the gender one, not the race one – offered the NHL an important chance to show off its progressive bona fides. Leading the charge was Leafs GM Brian Burke – he who values ‘truculence’ and stay at home defencemen in the most old school of ways – to opine that such name-calling has ‘no place in the game.’ Burke’s late son Brendan, of course, was involved in high-level hockey while being out of the closet, a truly important combination, and not one with many other parallel examples in the game.

Which is really the part of all of this that smacks of so much disingenuousness. When Burke makes such statements, is he talking about the game of hockey today? The same one that I watch? I would argue that homophobia does still have a place in the game and is still part of the culture. At the very least, it remains a yardstick by which men mark the boundaries and territories of what professional sports like hockey are and are not, and who is in and out, literally or otherwise.

(What evidence is there of this, you ask? I clearly don’t have anything irrefutable but try this: while it’s not the most representative of samples, take a browse through the ‘thoughts’ posted by espn.com readers in response to Burke’s comments. And then tell me homophobia isn’t accepted in sports culture anymore).

My frustration isn’t with Burke per se. Burke’s comments are nothing but laudable, not only given his family history, but also in the broader cultural struggle to deconstruct homophobia and circumvent the manufactured fear of gay people. In fact, I would argue that Burke’s comments are particularly courageous given the continued intractability of hetero-normativity in professional sports. What I take issue with is the general sneakiness that seems to accompany what we’ve been and are being sold by organizations like the NHL: that there’s no place for homophobia in their sport when everything I understand and observe about NHL hockey tells me that its still often business as usual in the day to day sexual politics of the league. I’m not an insider, granted. But I also have seen little evidence that would make me think that Simmonds’ slur at Avery was an aberration. (Neither, it must be mentioned, was the less than subtle assertion of hockey as a White sport that was so neatly and thoroughly represented in the banana toss).

Which brings us back to Sean Avery. If Avery has decided he is in a position to make a stand about homophobia in hockey, he is to be commended. We should all support any anti-homophobia action he is willing to take (while remembering, perhaps, his knack for finding the spotlight). But regardless of what Avery – or Burke – actually does or says or endures on or off the ice, it would be a mistake to conclude that these men represent the inexorable and universal march towards sexual and gender equality within the culture of hockey. Let’s hope this is in fact happening. But I can’t shake the feeling that it hasn’t happened yet, and certainly not with the transparency and clairvoyance of the NHL’s preferred narrative. There is much work to be done.

Indeed, until the NHL itself ‘comes out’ and acknowledges the presence and rootedness of homophobia, and details a plan to combat it, Avery will seem pretty light to me. And he’s likely to keep being called a ‘fuckin’ fag’ in the meantime.