These Brutal Playoffs: Is Hate the Right Word?

An Open Letter to NHL Players

Brad Marchand: “The more we play each other, the more we hate each other.”

Sidney Crosby: “I hate everyone on their team.”

Dear NHL Players,

Think about how people see you for a second. From the most skeptical perspective, you are grown men playing a game. You are millionaires with a union (which protects the players injuring others from suspension, as opposed to protecting the injured. That’s fucked up). You are mercenaries who fool the populace into thinking that you are playing for them, when really, why would you need that? Sure, you work hard, but you are more than well rewarded for that, and, need we remind you, you are working hard in pursuit of a game. I don’t subscribe to that view, although there is definitely validity to it, and it does describe certain players. Still, I prefer to think of you as masters of your craft, world class performers and artists, incredible entertainers that earn their millions, just like Brad Pitt or Adele.

But even if we see you in that more dignified light, you are still operating in a fantasy realm. What you are known for is not real. It ends after a horn, and can only happen within an area clearly limited by the boards. What you do is as real as theatre. But unlike (most) theatre, you are writing the script as you perform, and so in your performance you determine the nature of the fake reality you are creating. So if you want to treat the game as a realm in which brutal violence is permissible, then you can do that, and you have been. This is pathetic and depressing (I would want my money back if I paid to see that Pens-Flyers debacle), but it obviously works in the context in which you operate (and it sells, although how long that can last is open to debate. The NHL wants the playoffs to be like March Madness right? Does that sell based on the violence it permits?). On the other hand, If you want to approach your game as dignified but dedicated professionals who understand that the goal is to outplay and outcheck your opponent, acknowledging that there are certain rules of common decency that should be followed, while allowing that mistakes will be made, injuries will happen, but both should be purposely limited, then you can do that too. It’s up to you.

However, both of the above understandings of the game EXIST IN FANTASY, IN THE REALM OF PLAY. It is a very important fantasy to many people, and it is fine (I would argue awesome) to take it very seriously and get all the real emotional payoff, aesthetic pleasure and dramatic thrill out of it that you can. But even if you can feel real things and get real value from this fantasy, it is still a fantasy. As such, there is a certain level of distance you should maintain from it.

Therefore, you should not be using serious words like “hate” to describe your rivalries. Hate is a real thing, people get killed for what that word represents. You don’t hate the Flyers, Sidney Crosby, you want to beat them in a game. And Brad Marchand, just shut the hell up and play the game right. Because once you realize that what you do is essentially cut off from reality, but that it can, via injuries, affect reality, you might notice that it’s damn silly, and tragic, for someone to get seriously injured as the result of something happening in a game. And you might notice that this supposed “hatred” you have for one another impacts how you play on the ice, in that you are more likely to elbow a dude in the head if you’re thinking you “hate” him, as opposed to just competing against him, however passionately.

Because what happens in this fantasy realm can affect people in the real world, what happens there can really matter. Which means the attitude you approach the game with matters. You are setting an example, remember, of how to try hard while maintaining your dignity and that of the game, as well as of respecting others in the context of competition. Therefore, the words you use matter, because they define that attitude. I doubt it’s any coincidence that this word, hate, is popping up in dirty series. Both the word and the related actions on the ice are out of step with the true nature of the game. Because, while you might be able to construe the game as a venue for senseless and dangerous violence, given the pliable nature of a fantasy, or play, realm, it’s clearly ridiculous and silly to do so once you’ve realized that you’ve made the conscious choice to make the game that way.

Why would you want to do that? Do you also want a concussion, your for your good friend and teammate to suffer one? Or do you want earn you bragging rights because you were simply better than the other side?

This doesn’t apply to all players, but it does to far too many: show some dignity, play the game, and grow up. The Hockey Gods will know if you did this right or not.

You don’t hate each other. So stop acting like it. At best, you play hate each other, like children playing house. Children, too, have great minds for fantasy. It is contingent upon their parents to teach them the difference between that and real life. Need we do the same for you?

Yours Truly,

E Martin Nolan

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

Hockey and Regulation Part I: Who’s a Better Referee, Bob Probert or a Referee?

Backhand Shelf’s Daniel Wagner thinks it’s weird that Ralph Nader entered the public debate over fighting in hockey. He also thinks Nader’s open letter to Gary Bettman exposed Nader as a hockey know-nothing. He’s wrong on both accounts. On the latter point, Wagner employs an unspoken double standard to dismiss Nader’s argument. Although he only dismisses it half-heartedly, Wagner does successfully attack the multiple holes in Nader’s argument. But be that as it may, Wagner’s counterargument is trivial and incomplete, because he does nothing to attack the core of Nader’s argument, which is that if the NHL were serious about dealing with head injuries, it wouldn’t take risks with players’ health by allowing fighting, even if the risk involved there were slight. Instead of taking that argument head on, Wagner pokes insignificant holes in that argument, missing the woods for a couple trees.

For instance, Wagner blames Nader for relying on “intuition” instead of “science.” Let’s stop and think about this for a second. Wagner’s claim is that there is no overwhelming scientific evidence that fighting causes brain injuries. Fair enough (Nader also notes this), but why is it necessary to unquestionably prove a link between fighting and brain injuries before arguing for a ban on fighting? Why is fighting innocent until proven guilty? The answer to that question leads us to the unspoken double standard Wagner, and many other fighting apologist (or half-apologists) employ. Wagner accuses Nader of using intuition instead of scientific evidence, but what is it that leads fighting defenders to believe fighting should have a place in the game? Scientific evidence? Right. For defenders of hockey fighting, scientific evidence only works in the negative sense of poking holes in anti-fighting arguments, never to defend fighting itself (sounds kind of like global warming skeptics, huh?).

Do they use logic then? Well, a kind of logic, and one that relies heavily on intuition. As Simon Darnell has pointed out on this blog, there is a twisted logic in the hockey world that supports the fighting tradition. That logic has it that fighting establishes a kind of justice in the game. There’s been no lack of discussion over “the code” that determines this fighting-based justice, so I won’t go into it here, but I do want to mention one thing about “the code:” it is a form of regulation. Regulation, broadly defined, refers to any overarching entity that governs the particulars of an environment, be it business, a school district or a sport. It is generally thought of (outside of Reagan-worshipping circles) as something directed at maintaining the public good by providing a check on powerful interests, be it an oil company or a big strong power forward. And that is exactly how hockey fighting proponents see the tradition: as a positive thing that stops nice little skill players from being beaten up by big strong goons or cheap-shotters. Read more of this post

Weekly Links: Overcoming Social Expectations of non-Aggression in Women’s Hockey; NCAA and KHL Look to Grow Their Global Economic Footprints; Why is NHL Fighting on the Decline?

Welcome to Hockey in Society’s Weekly Links post. This feature highlights articles or blog entries that are related to Hockey in Society’s areas of interest and that may be of interest to the site’s readers.

Hockey Links

  • Easily the best thing I’ve read this week: a first person (dare I say ethnographic?) account of the socially engrained expectations of femininity that female hockey players must overcome in order to play the game more aggressively, more assertively, and more pleasurably. Definitely give this a read. Hell, give the whole blog a read because everything I’ve looked at so far is fantastic. [A Theory of Ice; h/t to @dagmar27 for the link]
  • The number of NHL fights are down this season. A couple bloggers this week delved into some of the reasons behind this decline. First, Greg Wyshynski suggests that factors such as the shifting role of the enforcer, the smaller number of “dance partners” prepared to drop the gloves, the reduction of downtime between stoppages in play, Brendan Shanahan’s stricter enforcement of supplemental discipline, and the growing awareness about concussions and brain injury. [Puck Daddy]
  • Next up, Justin Bourne suggests that a rise in the quality of play and a reduction in fighting in the minor and junior hockey leagues has meant that many players coming through those systems have not had to fight their whole careers. In other words, the AHL is more like the NHL and less like Slap Shot, in that skilled players likely do not fight in the same way they were pressured to a decade or more ago. [Backhand Shelf]
  • A Globe and Mail editorial takes a very strong stance against fighting, in light of Colton Orr’s demotion from the NHL: “It is morally bankrupt to ask Colton Orr ever to fight again. After 99 NHL fights, he is at heightened risk of lifelong brain damage.” [Globe and Mail]
  • Ken Campbell with an excellent look at the “illogical pro-fighting stance” of Brian Burke. [The Hockey News; h/t to Hockey in Society reader Peter for the link]
  • It appears that the 2013 Winter Classic may be hosted at Michigan University’s 100,000+ capacity football stadium, after Yahoo! Sports broke the story that the NHL and the university have been in advanced discussions about this possibility. [Puck Daddy]
  • Speaking of unconventional hockey venues, plans are afoot to potentially host a hockey game on a US Navy aircraft carrier. That is mind-boggling in so many ways. This reminds me that I really need to get revisit to my plans to explore the relationship between hockey and militarism. These posts are still very much in the cards, they’ve just been pushed to the backburner the past few months. [SB Nation]
  • Interesting interview with the NCAA’s Executive Director of College Hockey, Paul Kelly. The NCAA is trying to increase its appeal as an alternative to junior hockey, although inter-league politics complicate the process. The NCAA is also seeking to grow its brand in Canada through increased television exposure and even the possibility of a Frozen Four (the NCAA’s championship tournament] being hosted in Toronto. [Arctic Ice Hockey]
  • If you look past some of the stereotypes about Russia and the presentation of sensational examples of how business can be conducted in the country, this article has some fascinating insight into the politics, economics, and ambition of the Kontinental Hockey League – including the fact that it envisages by 2015 itself as a 60-team league spread out across Europe and Asia. [The Star]
  • US national team superstar Angela Ruggiero has retired from hockey and will focus on her work with the International Olympic Committee Athlete’s Commission, in which role she will hopefully be able to increase the IOC’s support for women’s hockey. [Women's International Ice Hockey]
  • The New Jersey Devils are aggressively and innovatively using new media to grow the team’s popularity. Interesting look at one of the many ways in which new media is changing the landscape of professional sports. [Sports Business Journal, via Puck Daddy]
  • The NHL Player’s Association rejected the NHL’s plan for realignment. Ken Campbell explains how this is a political tactic in advance of upcoming labour negotiations between the union and the league. [The Hockey News]
  • Cam Charron, who like me is also a contributor at Nucks Misconduct, has a humorous and insightful breakdown of Don Cherry’s statements on last week’s Coach’s Corner. [Legion of Blog]
  • James Mirtle with an interesting look at the rise of Americans in the NHL, and the reasons behind this increase. [Globe and Mail]
  • Future bidders on the World Junior Championships will require “deep pockets, big arenas” as the tournament’s profit-making potential continues to rise. [CBC Sports]
  • Daniel Wegner looks at how the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks are making the controversy around Brad Marchand’s suspension worse by waging an ongoing war of words about it. [Backhand Shelf]

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.