By Simon Darnell
When Kanye West dropped a bomb on the musical world in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, music critics lost their collective shit trying to process, internalize and communicate what they had just absorbed. So sprawling and epic, so contradictory, so unabashed in its assessments was the album that it could really only be accepted as an actual Dark Fantasy. And Kanye could only be lauded for having the guts, the audacity, the talent and, dare I say it, the truculence to put it all out there.
All of which means that Brian Burke is now the Kanye West of hockey. There, I said it.
This week Burke unleashed a press conference on the hockey world that was so spectacularly abrasive that it cut right to the heart of the issue. Watching it was not unlike watching Louis CK’s sitcom (just named by TIME as the best tv show of 2011); we recognize the form but not the content in that form. Nor the aesthetic. And as a result, it penetrates to a degree that we’re unprepared for. I finished watching Burke’s presser with that same degree of unsettled admiration – and slightly drooling tongue – that I get from watching Louis.
If you haven’t seen Burke’s performance, go watch it. Then read Mark Norman’s post on this site for an incisive analysis. If you’re still interested after all that, here is what it said to me:
Fundamentally, Burke reminded us in no uncertain terms that professional hockey is designed to be a fantasy world. A serious one at that. We are often led to believe that sports like hockey are some kind of microcosm of society, or a world in which life’s lessons are learned, or even a place where eternal themes are played out. Y’know, ‘sport is the best reality show’ and all that (crap). Burke ground those theories into a pulp by making an impassioned and eloquent plea to maintain the unapologetic exceptionalism of hockey culture. He told the rest of us that the world professional hockey has carved out – a spectacularly and uniformly gendered world of character, pride and honour – can no longer maintain the barriers and boundaries that it has painstakingly established.
Outraged citizen – ‘You can’t hit someone in a bar and not go to jail! So why can you hit someone in a hockey game and it’s fine?’ (BTW – I’ve said this to students in university classes on more than one occasion)
Brian Burkes of the world – ‘Because this is hockey. It’s a dark, fantasy world reserved for a few. You’re invited to watch, but don’t tell us what to do. We’ve made an alternative reality where we understand the rules. And you’ve loved the spectacle of it for decades.’
Yet, now the curtain is being drawn back (Why? Because of concussions? Derek Boogard? Crosby’s brain? I’m not sure we can pinpoint it) and Burke wants us to know that he’s not in a position to keep it pulled tight. His description and treatment of this yellow brick road that he now finds himself on was truly captivating. He openly explored and embraced the tension between the pressure to keep up with trends within the game versus the costs to the sanctity and romance of hockey logic. He nobly (and contradictorily) re-committed himself to player safety and protection by refusing to play off fighting against brain health in some kind of best-of-seven morality series. He acknowledged and openly cheered for the incredible excitement of NHL hockey in 2012, with so many young superstars whose skill sets are revolutionizing styles of play. He also called out the supposed moral superiority of the NHL’s current justice system in which the league polices players and tells players they are not able to do it for themselves. And he did it all with an eloquence and gravitas that can only mean that it is now officially impossible to watch Coach’s Corner ever again.
(It also must be noted that he pulled the whole thing off ‘wearing’ a perfectly placed un-tied tie that somehow signaled that this was a special occasion. As if it was some kind of ‘last minute’ meeting in the biggest, most prestigious hockey market in the world to announce the demotion of a fourth liner to the minors. F’ing brilliant.)
And the last, but by no means least, accomplishment is that in 10 minutes Brian Burke forced the anti-fighting crowd – the ‘Greenpeacers’ in his parlance – to re-evaluate the stability of their collective soapbox. I know because I’m one of them. Case in point: I wanted so desperately for the Canucks to win the Cup last year not just because they’re my team but also because it became for me an ideological battle between the Big Bad Bruins and the sweet skating Swedes. Eventually, though, it also became a series in which true hatred rained down around the villainous archetypes of the hockey world that are Brad Marchand and Max Lapierre. And Burke is warning us that an unintended consequence of the new NHL could be the continued ascension of these characters. Can fighting actually prevent any of this, particularly given that the referees in the Bruins/Canucks series were so clearly ineffective when it came to doing so? I don’t know. Burke has made me think about it, though.
I am de-stabilized. I know that the code has always ostensibly been built on respect. Respect for violence, pain, sacrifice, and retribution. (Not exactly the top of the dominant moral hierarchy). So I dismissed the code, and still largely do. It wasn’t until Brian Burke called my attention to this twisted fantasy world of hockey with such conviction that I was willing to think it over in any intellectual way.
Take that, Kanye.