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

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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.


Mark Norman

[Phone number omitted]

2 thoughts on “The Problems with Frontier Justice in Hockey: An Open Letter to The Hockey News

  1. Pingback: Brian Burke Laments Decline of the Enforcer, Fears that “Rats” Will Dominate Hockey: What Does this Tell us About Hockey Culture? « Hockey in Society

  2. Pingback: The Dept. of Player Safety: Further proof that the ‘Code’ no longer exists? « Hockey in Society

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