By E. Martin Nolan
Like most people I stood up, rising off my feet a bit, when the circling, diffuse hive of the game would suddenly stop and, somewhere behind the play, the focus would grow static, with the crowd collectively gasping before collectively cheering as the brawlers circled each other and closed in. I was raised with a healthy, if somewhat patronizing, respect for the local fighting hero, Bob Probert, or “Probie,” whose gap-toothed smile revealed what to like about him: the gaps displayed the toughness, but the smile was what told you he was on your side, that he’d only ever hurt the other guys, in defense of you and your team’s honour.
Don’t dismiss the honour. “The Code” that justifies hockey fighting might be mostly a myth, but even so it is powerful, effective, and asks for just a little periodic justification to keep it afloat. So when Claude Lemieux savagely reconstructed Kris Draper’s face in 1997 at the end of an already decided playoff series, “The Code” took a good long look at itself in the mirror: time to spruce up old boy, they’ll be laying out the red carpet for you soon. And did they ever. The next spring the wrong had their honour restored by the blood on Patrick Roy’s face, prominently displayed the next morning on the front page of the newspaper, and in the everlasting shame of Lemieux, who was ever so willing to check a man from behind but turned cowardly away from Darren McCarty’s frontier justice. From this, a team’s bond was forever strengthened, and a few months later they’d bring the cup home for the first time in half a century. All was morally right in the universe.
So the story goes. Claude Lemieux’s comeuppance is just one dramatic episode in the long myth that supports hockey fighting. Lesser examples are not hard to find. Ryan Miller got hit by Lucic: The Code dictates that Lucic should now have his face smashed in by some goliath. Etc, etc. As you know, this myth is losing steam for a few reasons, including the mounting evidence that fighting exacts a terrible, sometimes life-threatening, toll on the fighters and the fact that now teams can hardly afford to save a roster spot for a guy with few actual hockey skills. But there’s something else going on too, something embedded in the morality behind the myth that made fighting acceptable in the first place, that deserves attention. The medical and strategic trends moving against hockey fighting enter the discussion from outside the moral framework that justifies fighting, so if those are the reasons fighting is ultimately abandoned, there is the threat that that moral framework might escape the proper examination it deserves.
So let’s have a look at that. As we’ve seen, part of the draw of hockey fighting is that it is justified by a moral framework in which your Gretzky or your Crosby are the damsel in distress who must be guarded by the goon in shining armour. But how often, really, is that the cause of a fight? And if protection were the real motive behind fighting, if we really did value fighting for its positive moral ramifications, how would that look? I suspect it would be a rather dour affair, with your average fans interior monologue running something like “truly unfortunate that their third line winger took a run at our star, now he shall have to be subjected to the most brutal of punishments: bludgeoning by knuckle. Too bad, but it must be done. I can hardly stand to watch, but it must be done, for justice’s sake.”
As I winced my way through the New York Times’ documentary on Derek Boogaard, I found myself focusing less on the fights and more on the faces in the crowd and the voices of the announcers. Safe to say they do not share the attitude of the strictly moral fan imagined above. No, the fans look hungry, you can almost see the drool, and the announcers exude a fervent eagerness to shift into boxing play-by-play: “here we go, battle of the titans!”
Clearly, hockey fighting is only occasionally a medium for dolling out justice. Yet, only on the grounds that it is can it be defended. Few would argue in good faith that fighting is worth keeping in the game based its own merits, in and of themselves, as opposed to based on the service it provides in keeping players in line, or enforcing “The Code.” But the fact is that fighting is actually popular because people love it, in and of itself; people love to see men bash each other (although it would be interesting to know how much less women enjoy this, and if I am correct in assuming it would be far less than men). In any case, the moral argument for fighting is just an excuse to indulge in mindless violence, and therein lies the most troubling aspect of this whole issue: the fact that we would use the cover of morality to mask one of the very things, unjustified violence, that morality is supposed to protect against. Aren’t we supposed to be proud to live in a land where no one is above the law? Then why did we let Boogaard or Probert be above it? Why did we insist that that they sacrifice their wellness so that we could get a quick rush, all in the name of some mostly-sham code? I say “we” because, as I said, I stood too.
We know more now about the damage we caused in supporting hockey’s fighting culture, but should we have needed that knowledge to know fighting as it was practiced in the goon years was not right? Shouldn’t we have been able to identify the disconnect between the supposed enforcement of a code and a bald lust for violence? It was common knowledge that fighters fought each other in a kind of game within the game, to defend their own fighting-based prestige, and no one thought these fights were morally justified, even if they continued to justify fighting on a moral basis.
When I think about the excitement on fans’ faces as a fight breaks out, I don’t feel any moral superiority. I feel recognition, because even if I only ever supported fighting-as-code-enforcement, that carries with it an underlying love for the fight itself, the fight being made palatable by the moral code it plays into. Or, put another way: the moral code is the lie that gets the criminal through the door. In 1997 I wished Claude Lemieux would have raised his face just once and let McCarty land one good straight one there, one hard enough, maybe, to make Claude’s brain bounce against his skull. How satisfying that would have been to my sense of justice.