On (Canadian) Thanksgiving CBC News aired a timely special with Mark Kelly called “Hockey’s Hard Hits”. In this one hour “investigative report” Kelly interviews former NHL enforcers Jim Thomson, Jimmy Mann and Chris Nilan while also delving into fighting, head shots and Ken Dryden’s expertise.
Jim Thomson offers a very candid recounting of how he became an enforcer, that he basically fell into it. He got a couple of lucky punches in as a junior and his fists quickly became his meal ticket despite the fact that, as he claims, he never enjoyed fighting and had dreams of making the NHL because of his goal scoring prowess. Thomson continues to explain that his fear of getting his face beaten in by guys like Rick Tocchet would keep him up for nights before a game, so much so that he turned to drugs and alcohol in order to sleep. His fear came from the fact that being an enforcer meant that you were always “one punch away from being out of the NHL”, and argues that no enforcer he knew enjoyed their role.
I know behind the scenes of what fighting did to [John Kordic, Mark Potman, Bob Probert]. I never knew Boogaard, I never knew Rypien, Wade Belak. You can say it’s not connected, I know for a fact talking to every one of those guys late at night, and we all had the same story. We hated it…So when I see these guys I feel for them.
Thomson’s counter-normative description of being an enforcer is a stark contrast to the next video interview with Mann and Nilan where all you hear is “old-time hockey”, which basically refers to when “The Code” was far stronger than it is today. Nilan cuts through all the rough and just calls it plain payback – sticking up for your teammates.
Every time there is a brawl or something like that happens every bleeding ass liberal comes out and has something to say about the game of hockey and they never go to games and they never watch the games.
Nilan discusses that he, unlike Thomson, enjoyed fighting particularly the fact that it made him feel like “a man” to drop his gloves and take care of business. He references that he enjoyed sticking up for his teammates, in other words, one could say he enjoyed the feeling of being needed. Nilan also references The Code when he reminisces about a rogue stick to the face he gave to Rick Middleton saying that “that wasn’t the type of player I was…I always fought the tougher guys, I never went after guys like that.” The Code section 4, verse 6: Thou shall not fight he who is not also a fighter.
The special then shows clips of Brendan Shanahan’s new martial law for the NHL, Eric Lindros’ take on head shots and a living room chat with Ken Dryden. After watching this special here is what I have to say:
You can make as many rules as you want but until the culture of the game changes head shots and fighting will remain as deeply entrenched in the game as beer commercials during intermission (and every other break for that matter). Shanahan, Lindros and Dryden, whether explicitly or between the lines, accept the fact that prevention is not a viable solution and promote more and better rules as the way to go. Shanahan and his fancy online videos tell us after the fact what rule was enforced. Lindros states that concussions will happen but we need better medical treatment. Dryden insists we need to label head shots as intent to injure. But rules, suspensions and medical treatment after the fact will not detour someone who was raised like Nilan to find joy and meaning in opportunities to demonstrate his manhood in the only way that he knows how and the only way that is acceptable in the NHL. The goal should not be the change the game but the men who play it.
The Code allows for retaliation by any means necessary. The Code is what needs to change because The Code, although it is known as a Code for sports, is really a Code for masculinity. It is the way that a MAN conducts his business. It is the way a MAN conducts himself in his private life. It is the way a MAN handles adversity. It is the way a MAN shows camaraderie. It is the way a MAN protects his family (hockey or otherwise). Concussions, head shots and fighting are merely consequences of a Code that stifles individual character and limits evolution of the game. The game is trying to change and some like Don Cherry are holding it back kicking and screaming. We can think of this rash of head shots as hockey puberty. A time of transition where one doesn’t know exactly what is going on but uses this time of confusion to make mistake after mistake just waiting for things to *ahem* fall into place, shall we say. I realize that I write this not as a MAN and many may think that I have no place writing about masculinity in hockey; but, the fact remains that your MAN CODE greatly affects how I play, experience and watch hockey as a woman. How you live and play as a MAN affects much more than you as an individual, right now it affects the state of the game of hockey as a whole and all who choose to engage. What does The Code have to say about that?
Used to love a good hockey fight but now not so sure