Hockey violence and the 2012 NHL playoffs: Why a moral panic won’t change the NHL’s cultural tolerance of violence

There has been no shortage of ink spilled in the past weeks about the surprising and upsetting levels of violence that have characterized the 2012 NHL playoffs thus far – including insightful posts from Hockey in Society’s E. Martin Nolan about psychosocial understandings of hockey violence and the fantastical nature of “hatred” between players.

NHL VP of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan has certainly been a busy man during these playoffs, handing down suspensions to eight players and fining two other players. The standard of discipline has varied wildly, with Shea Weber getting just a $2,500 fine for slamming Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the boards and Raffi Torres receiving a 25-game suspension for a leaping hit that sent Marian Hossa off the ice on a stretcher. The level of violence, which to most observers seems unusually high even for the emotionally-charged playoff season, has created a moral panic about the state of hockey and an unsurprising bevy of counterarguments from entrenched interests in the sport. At the same time, television ratings have soared in spite (or because) of the on-ice violence.

While I sympathize with the crusaders at the vanguard of the moral panic, my optimism about their ability to fundamentally alter NHL hockey is limited. As this post will explore, the NHL has a tightly controlled and insular culture that militates against outside interference. While some influential media members may hold some sway in the NHL boardrooms, it is hard not to see the league swatting away much of the outrage with minimal damage to its brand or popular integrity.

Read more of this post

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

Weekly Links: Mainstream Media and Bloggers Tackle Mental Illness; Winter Classic Details; Ralph Nader Calls for NHL Fighting Ban

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

  • February 8 was Let’s Talk Day, an event organized to raise awareness and provide support for sufferers of mental illness. Kent Basky at Nucks Misconduct had a moving and personal post about about the issue. [Nucks Misconduct]
  • And Michael Landsberg, host of TSN’s show Off the Record, also spoke about his own battles with depression. [TSN]
  • If you read Ted Nolan’s post this week, you already know that although the next Winter Classic will be held in Ann Arbor, at Michigan University’s “Big House,” Detroit will host a variety of events at Comerica Park. Puck Daddy has the breakdown of these events, which include NCAA, OHL, and high school games. [Puck Daddy]
  • Meanwhile, the NHL is aiming to break an attendance record at the Big House: at least 115,000 tickets will be available for the game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. [Puck Daddy]
  • An interesting article about the ways in which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used hockey as part of his political PR. [The Guardian]
  • Chris Lund discusses the fan movement to return an NHL team to Quebec City. Hard to imagine Gary Bettman being keen on reversing two 1990s-era franchise relocations. [Backhand Shelf]
  • Speaking of relocated franchises… A report suggests that Winnipeg’s love affair with the Jets will lower support for other cultural or artistic institutions in the city, including the CFL’s Blue Bombers. [Globe and Mail]
  • Boston Bruins players are not happy about it, but it appears that the NHL’s tougher stance on illegal plays has forced them to change their style of play. [SB Nation]
  • Tim Thomas continues to make public political statements – this time via his Facebook page – and then refuse to discuss them with the media. [Backhand Shelf]
  • Ken Campbell weighs in on this latest controversy, arguing that if Thomas passionately believes in his political stance then “he probably shouldn’t be afraid to discuss his views when someone puts a microphone into his face and asks for an explanation.” [The Hockey News]
  • Ralph Nader’s League of Fans, an organization that lobbies for changes in professional sport, published an open letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman calling for a ban on fighting. [League of Fans]
  • While I agree with Nader philosophically, Daniel Wegner raises good points about some problematic aspects of the letter – in particular, its conflation of fighting and concussions. [Backhand Shelf]
  • Minnesota, AKA The State of Hockey, is taking tough action on headshots in an effort to increase player safety at the high school level. [KARE 11]
  • 24 Women’s and 32 Men’s national teams have applied for qualification to the 2014 Winter Olympics. The list includes the usual suspects, as well as lesser-known hockey nations such as Spain, South Korea, and Hungary. [Puck Worlds]
  • I strongly believe that there is a fascinating research opportunity to trace how, as part of flows of globalization, hockey has spread to and taken root in different parts of the world. This article looks at some of the reasons behind the sport’s recent growth in the United Arab Emirates. []

General Sport Links

  • Hockey in Society blogger Courtney Szto looks at how sports fandom is a masculine realm, and the resultant social expectations placed upon female fans. [The Rabbit Hole]

Weekly Links: Gender Disparities in Media Coverage of Hockey Injuries; Winter Classic Alumni Game Participants Don’t Get Paid; Are the Montreal Canadiens Still Relevant?

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

  • Detroit native E. Martin Nolan had a busy week! In addition to his post considering the Toronto Maple Leafs as a public institution, he also wrote this great piece criticizing the (likely) possibility that the 2013 Winter Classic – featuring the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs – will take place at Michigan University in Ann Arbor instead of in Detroit. [E. Martin Nolan]
  • Dr. Nicole LaVoi, a Professor at University of Minnesota and associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, critiques the disparity in media attention given to severe injuries suffered in separate incidents by high school hockey players Jack Jablonski (male) and Jenna Privette (female). [MPR News]
  • And Chris Peters offers a rebuttal to LaVoi’s piece. [United States of Hockey]
  • I am working my way through the many excellent posts on A Theory of Ice. The most recent that I have thoroughly enjoyed is a critical look at the World Junior Championships and the effect that it has on the teenage boys who are the tournament’s stars. [Theory of Ice]
  • Puck Buddys is running a series of interviews with “Zach” – a gay high school hockey player in the US – about his experiences in youth and high school hockey. Parts 1 & 2 have so far been posted. [Puck Buddys: Part 1; Part 2]
  • Gare Joyce wrote a lengthy piece about the decline of the Montreal Canadiens’ relevance that, despite its flaws, points out some of the complexities of the team and its social/cultural significance in Quebec. [Sportsnet]
  • Speaking of those flaws… well, Canadiens fans were quick to critique Joyce and, in the process, produced a number of excellent posts that both take down Joyce’s arguments and provide some fascinating insight into some of the nuances that he glosses over. [Habs Eyes on the Prize; A Theory of Ice]
  • The alumni game between former members of the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers that preceded the Winter Classic drew over 45,000 spectators and generated a reported $4 million in profit. Players were not paid beyond airfare and accommodation. In other words, as the always insightful Justin Bourne puts it, they “got completely and utterly hosed.” [Backhand Shelf; Puck Daddy]
  • It is easy sometimes to forget that sports injuries have serious ramifications in everyday for more than simply the injured player. Lauren Pronger, wife of Philadelphia Flyer Chris, reminds us that the effect of injury spreads far beyond the arena. [SB Nation]
  • Ken Dryden writes about headshots and concussions, and wants to see more “fight” (as in tenacity within the rules) and less “fighting” (as in pugilism and dangerous checks). [Grantland]
  • Great post by Travis Hughes about pirated internet streams of hockey games and how the NHL’s policy of blacking out local games in its online package may be driving fans to these illegal feeds. [SB Nation]
  • Justin Bourne consider what “we” means to hockey players, in terms of the team, the fans and the media. Interesting stuff about identity around professional sports teams. [Backhand Shelf]
  • Interesting infographic showing how the camera placement in sports arenas that TV networks use to get their game action shots. The representative hockey infographic is for Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings. [Puck the Media]
  • Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has won an award for his activism in support of gay rights. [The Star]
  • Crime fiction meets hockey in The Code, the debut novel of sportswriter Gare Joyce. [Globe and Mail]
  •  On the 54th anniversary of his NHL debut, a look at the career and life of Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the league. [Puck Daddy]
  • A positive review of the upcoming movie Goon, that is somewhat of a counterpoint to Courtney Szto’s post about the film. [Jerseys and Hockey Love]
  • After a hazing incident that involved teenagers getting drunk and being forced to cross-dress, a Michigan high school hockey coach is fired. Except, according to the coach, it wasn’t hazing: “”It’s not hazing,” Montrose told WDIV. “This is something like a right of passage. . . . It’s more like team building.””  [Prep Rally]

General Sport Links

  • I definitely recommend that you check out York University PhD student Nathan Kalman-Lamb’s new blog. In this post he looks at the Penn State scandal and examines where the blame should be placed. [Nathan Kalman-Lamb]
  • Why reform of the flawed NCAA system is unlikely. [Inside Higher Education]

The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer: Five Critical Issues Raised by the New York Times’ Series on Derek Boogaard

If you have not yet read John Branch’s New York Times series on former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, it should immediately jump to the top of your reading list. Boogaard passed away this past summer from an accidental overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills. In a compelling and upsetting three-part series, Branch offers a detailed narrative of Boogaard’s life and tragic death and links this individual story up to broader social and cultural issues in hockey.

Five issues stood out to me from Branch’s reporting, and I discuss each of these below. As what follows is a particularly long post, here is a brief outline of the five issues I discuss:

  1. This story is not really about Derek Boogaard
  2. The social pressures to fight start as a teenager
  3. Many players  abandon other career/life possibilities to pursue the dream of pro hockey
  4. Fighting takes an extremely damaging physical and mental toll
  5. The structures of junior and professional hockey are complicit in the damage caused by fighting

I strongly urge you to read Branch’s excellent articles, but I hope also that you find my commentary on his brilliant reporting to be interesting and of value. After the jump, my thoughts on five of the key issues raised by Branch: Read more of this post

Future Reading: “Sport, Violence and Society” by Kevin Young (2011)

Future Reading is an occasional feature that highlights new or upcoming publications on sport, and particularly hockey, that relate to Hockey in Society’s content and/or that may be of interest to its readers.

Well this is exciting, at least if you’re a nerd like me: a new book on sport and violence by sociologist Kevin Young. Dr. Young is a professor working in the University of Calgary’s Department of Sociology, and he has written extensively on issues relating to criminology, violence, and sport.

The summary of Sport, Violence and Society from Routledge’s website:

In this landmark study of violence in and around contemporary sport, Kevin Young offers the first comprehensive sociological analysis of an issue of central importance within sport studies. The book explores organized and spontaneous violence, both on the field and off, and calls for a much broader definition of ‘sports-related violence’, to include issues as diverse as criminal behaviour by players, abuse within sport and exploitatory labor practices.

Offering a sophisticated new theoretical framework for understanding violence in a sporting context, and including a wide range of case-studies and empirical data – from professional soccer in Europe to ice hockey in North America – the book establishes a benchmark for the study of violence within sport and wider society. Through close examination of often contradictory trends, from anti-violence initiatives in professional sports leagues to the role of the media in encouraging hyper-aggression, the book throws new light on our understanding of the socially-embedded character of sport and its fundamental ties to history, culture, politics, social class, gender and the law.

The Table of Contents offers some intriguing chapter titles, including “A History of Violence: Definitions, Theories, and Perspectives”; “Player Violence: The Drift to Criminalization”; and “Risk, Pain, and Injury in Sport: A Cause or Effect of Violence?”. Young has produced some very interesting scholarship over the years, so his new insights into sport violence should make for a fascinating and enlightening read.

One quibble: unless Young offers specific insight into the incident pictured on the cover – that is, Zenidine Zidane’s headbutt to Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup Final – I don’t find it a particularly helpful cover image, as I think there are far more compelling and less sensational examples that better highlight the many sociological problems concerning sports violence. I suspect that the choice of cover was a decision made by the publisher rather than the author, and that Routledge may have picked an image designed to appeal to a larger market rather than to reflect the content of the book. But, lest I be accused of judging a cover by its book, I will have to wait until I read Sport, Violence and Society to pass judgement.

Overall, this looks like it should be a very insightful publication that seems particularly topical to hockey fans and scholars, given the current climate surrounding issues such as fighting, headshots, frontier justice, and concussions.

Weekly Links: Cherry’s ratings plummet; KHL takes action against goonery; Headshot debate continues to rage

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

  • Interesting piece from Bruce Dowbiggen about a significant drop in Don Cherry’s ratings and how the new measurement instrument for TV viewership may be responsible. The old line was that Cherry drew better ratings than the hockey game itself. Was this a myth supported by inaccurate measuring equipment? Or has Cherry’s popularity and influence waned over the years? [Globe and Mail]
  • Dmitri Chesnokov reports that the KHL has taken action due to the most recent antics of Vityaz Chekhov, a team whose thuggery makes the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s look tame. Canadian Jeremy Yablonski was suspended the rest of the season, while fellow Canuck Kip Brennan was banned for 15 games. The KHL is now planning to implement a rule to limit North American players who have not played 80-120 NHL games, theoretically weeding out fighters who are not skilled enough to play at an NHL level. [Puck Daddy]
  • Good read about former referee Kerry Fraser, who believes that the NHL needs to do more about headshots, that fighting should be banned, and that Brendan Shanahan needs to remain firm on suspensions to protect players. [Regina Leader-Post]
  • Red Fisher criticizes the Pittsburgh Penguins for allowing Kris Letang to return to a game after taking a hit to the head. [The Gazette]
  • ESPN’s headline about the retirement of Mike Grier decided that his race was a defining feature of this NHL veteran: “U.S.-born black player Grier retires from NHL”. Stay classy, ESPN. [The Slanch Report; h/t to Puck Daddy]
  • Ken Campbell examines the potential legal battle between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL over whether the franchise could prevent a second NHL team from entering the Greater Toronto Area market. [The Hockey News]
  • Ryan Lambert pens a pro-fighting, anti-fighting-for-honour piece; an interesting editorial that is worth checking out. [Puck Daddy]
  • Interesting piece from about how Newsport Sports Management, an agency with many NHL clients, has an employee to handle various cultural and bureaucratic issues that its Russian clients and their families may face in North America. [New York Times]

General Sport Links

  • This week’s “must read”, in my opinion. Charles P. Pierce offers damning critique of the NBA lockout, asserting that it was not about economics – as the NBA spin doctors asserted – but the power of the league and its owners over the players and their union. Among the insightful quotes I could include here: “Lockouts are not devices of economic correction. That’s just a byproduct. Lockouts are attempts by management to exercise control over their workers. Period.” [Grantland]
  • The Canadian Forces and Prime Minister Stephen Harper featured prominently at the CFL’s championship game, the Grey Cup. For regular viewers of Canadian hockey this marriage of militarism and sport should not be a surprise. [Globe and Mail]
  • All-time great Paralympic athlete, Chantal Petitclerc, who won Canada’s award for outstanding athlete in 2008, leaves to coach in the UK because of lack of financial support in Canada. [Globe and Mail]
  • Great read about Basil D’Oliveira, a South African born cricketer who competed for England, and how he inadvertently sparked the international sports boycott against South Africa that helped bring down apartheid. [Game Theory]
  • Interesting article about the ways in which mass and new media have changed the prestige of athletes: “Our most famous athletes exist as ideas that we share and discuss. The most popular athletes in the world exist as memes.” [Grantland]
  • James Christie reports on the International Boxing Association’s attempts to mandate skirts as part of the uniform for female boxers. Boxing Canada is, thankfully, opposed to making skirts mandatory. [Globe and Mail]