Future Reading: “Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence is Killing Hockey” by Adam Proteau (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.

Adam Proteau’s new book, Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing Hockey, is incredibly timely. In particular, one can’t help but feel that the subtitle is a conscious allusion to the off-ice death of three hockey enforcers this past summer. Hockey fighting quickly became a hot button issue following the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, and this debate has taken on increased intensity following the New York Times‘ series on the life and untimely death of Boogaard. It is in this climate that Proteau’s book has been released, and while Fighting the Good Fight was most likely undertaken well before the events of this past summer, it will instantly become part of the ongoing, but recently intensified, debate about the role and consequences of fighting in hockey.

Proteau is an excellent columnist for The Hockey News, a rare writer who can simultaneously be informative, analytical, and entertaining. He is noted as a prominent anti-fighting voice within the mainstream media, and brings this perspective to bear in this book. The early reviews from the hockey blogosphere suggest that Proteau’s book could be quite influential in swaying the opinions of some of those who remain in the pro-fighting crowd. A review on The Hockey Writers states:

I was skeptical at best before reading Proteau’s book. However, his factual evidence, persuasive arguments, and straight-forward ideas have forced me to rethink what hockey actually is versus what it should/could be. Fighting the Good Fight should be mandatory reading for all hockey fans. It may just make one think about what really belongs in the sport.

What gets me really excited as a sociologist is that Proteau not only appears to have used extensive interviewing to reach his conclusions, but also that he expands the discussion from the single issue of fighting to critique the broader culture of hockey. From a review on Hockey Book Reviews:

[Proteau] talks with medical experts on head injuries and concussions. He talks with players, coaches, managers and experts about head shots, aggressive bodychecking, injuries and discipline. . . . Furthermore he expands his attack to the entire established hockey culture.

This definitely looks to be valuable contribution to the popular hockey literature, and it is a book that I am excited to read. I purchase the book over the holidays, and hope to have a review of it up on this site early in the new year.

The Problems with Frontier Justice in Hockey: An Open Letter to The Hockey News

Image from: http://nytimes.com

This afternoon I sent a letter to the editor of The Hockey News in response to this article by Ryan Kennedy, in which he advocates for “frontier justice” in light of the recent Milan Lucic hit on Ryan Miller – a topic recently discussed by courtneyszto here on Hockey in Society. The full text of the letter is reproduced below:

Dear Editor,

I am writing in response to Ryan Kennedy’s article “Advocating for Frontier Justice”, posted on The Hockey News website on November 16. The letter left me dumbfounded, as it advocated for bully tactics that have proven time and time again to be extremely damaging to hockey players and to contribute to a broader culture of violence in the sport. I would like to think that Mr. Kennedy was writing satirically, but his passion for retaliatory violence seems genuine and last time I checked he is a writer for The Hockey News, not The Onion.

Mr. Kennedy essentially yearns for a return to the mythologized glory days where players policed themselves by an unwritten honour code, in which actions that transgressed “the Code” were punished by further retaliatory violence. This is a tired argument that Canadians, at least, have had verbally beaten into them through Don Cherry’s weekly trips to his Coach’s Corner bully pulpit. It is an argument that not only charts very dubious ethical ground, but one that also romanticizes the past at the expense of critically assessing the social and health impacts of self-policed hockey. Do we really want more Dino Ciccarelli stick attacks? Or Broad Street Bullies gang attacks that beat opponents into submission? Or, for a more contemporary example, more Todd Bertuzzi revenge hits? Because those actions are the logical extension of what Mr. Kennedy proposes.

Mr. Kennedy even happily admits that innocent victims – those who have done nothing to violate “the Code” but who happen to be on the same team as someone who has – should be targets for retaliation in this grand system of self-policed and “honourable” hockey. As Mr. Kennedy so eloquently and bloodthirstily puts it, “If . . . your goaltender just got steamrolled, but you can’t get at the perp, why not just beat the crap out of the guy nearest to you?” I cannot begin to tell you how pleasing it is to hear such humane and rational arguments coming from one of the most influential hockey publications in the world

I have a number of other issues with Mr. Kennedy’s suggestions, but I will focus here on just two. Firstly, Mr. Kennedy seems to glorify a world in which physical dominance equals success, in which the weak can and should be bullied, and in which manly men fight, literally, to climb to the top of this Darwinian heap. If such is the worldview of Mr. Kennedy, or The Hockey News, then that is a sad social vision indeed. While one can argue that “it’s just hockey” and therefore has no broader implications, such an argument ignores the complex ways in which sport and society interact and influence each other. It also forgets the exponentially higher number of hockey players who do not make the NHL compared with those who do – and leaves unanswered the questions about what happens to the kings of the minor or junior hockey jungles when their hockey careers are cut short. Are the lessons these young men are learning in such a physically brutal environment – that strength is superiority, that violence is an acceptable solution to problems, that stereotypically masculine codes of behaviour are clearly better than the alternatives offered by women or “unmanly” men – really the social attitudes with which our athletic youth should be entering adulthood?

Secondly, Mr. Kennedy seems entirely happy to have the NHL take a regulatory step back from the game and let the players police themselves. He states that “you may balk at frontier justice, but it’s still justice – and that’s always better than law.” Does that mean that law precludes justice? Can’t we have both? Rather than criticizing Buffalo Sabres players for not attacking Milan Lucic (or his linemates who had nothing to do with running Ryan Miller) because this would have been a form of “justice” in light of the NHL’s decision not to punish Lucic, why not criticize the league itself for being too toothless to enforce its own rules and to create safe conditions for its players to work in? Should we accept an NHL that is too cowardly to take violence seriously and that is happy to pass the buck for justice to the players? Or should we call for the league to take firmer action, to enforce the rules of the game, and to protect players’ health and livelihoods? To me, the latter option is the obvious choice. Otherwise, we may as well throw out the rulebook, tell the refs to stand back, and let the bloodbath begin.

In conclusion, I take very serious issue with Mr. Kennedy’s casual acceptance of violence in hockey and his suggestion that players enforce the rules of the game by the warped standards of “the Code”. I also feel that The Hockey News should make a strong effort to present alternative visions to the damaging views espoused by Mr. Kennedy, and to seriously consider the consequences that would arise from an implementation of his ideal for the sport. I know Mr. Kennedy is but one voice amongst many in the hockey media – but I sincerely hope, for the good of the players and fans of the sport, that his views are in the minority.

Sincerely,

Mark Norman

[Phone number omitted]

The Sad State of Women’s Hockey Coverage, and Some Suggestions for Change

(Image from: http://www.cbc.ca)

Yesterday I purchased The Hockey News’ recent special publication, The Best of Everything in Hockey. The magazine features 57 categories upon which a “panel of experts” voted. Categories include everything from “Best All-Around Player” and “Best Shooter” to “Best P.R. Team” and “Best Arena Food”. So, fans of the women’s game are no doubt asking, what do they have to say about the best of the best in women’s hockey?

The sad answer is: not much.

In fact, women are featured in only two of the 57 lists. The “Best Women’s Player” (as opposed to the “Best All-Around Player”, a category that is clearly assumed only to include men) is at least included, though not exactly prominently highlighted. The list is presented 39th out of 57, after such critical categories as “Best Grinder”, “Best Shootout Move”, and “Best Linesman”. Thankfully, the women’s hockey is featured more highly than “Best Mascot” or “Best Hockey Song”.

What’s the other list that features women, you ask? Why “Best Cheerleaders”, of course.

While this marginalization of the women’s game, not to mention women in general, is pathetic, I do need to make an acknowledgement: there is very little women’s hockey for The Hockey News and other hockey media to cover. Aside from the annual World Championships and 4 Nations tournament, and of course the quadrennial Winter Olympics, elite level women’s hockey in North America is limited to the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and NCAA and CIS university competition. This leads to a chicken-and-egg argument, where media can cite lack of interest as the reason for ignoring women’s hockey; yet women’s cannot grow in popularity without adequate media exposure.

I find it hard to believe that powerful media entities like TSN, CBC, and The Hockey News – to say nothing of local and national newspapers – could not drum up significant interest in women’s hockey. After all, these are financially powerful tastemakers that have significant marketing clout. Giving exposure to incredible athletes such as Hayley Wickenheiser or Angela Ruggiero, and drumming up television and print interest in the CWHL, would lead to increased viewership of and exposure for women’s hockey and possibly allow a professional or semi-pro league structure to develop. If hockey became a legitimate career option for women, more of them would choose to stay in the sport after their NCAA or CIS careers and elite players could focus more extensively on their physical and skill training – both of which would significantly raise the quality of the game, and open up room for expanding the league beyond its current six teams. Read more of this post