Hockey Tall Tales, Fan Bloodlust and the Non-Inevitability of Gratuitous Hockey Violence
In the Moment
Last month, Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski defended the fan’s natural inclination to root for an opposing player’s injury. The occasion was an incident in Montreal, where some fans cheered when opposing super villain Zdeno Chara was hit in the face with the puck (Chara was not seriously injured, but that was not clear at the time the fans cheered). In his piece, Wyshynski does not applaud Habs fans for this, but he understands their sentiment. It is natural, he argues, for fans to enjoy an opposition player’s pain, at least “in the moment,” and to his credit he takes full responsibility for this position. He might have cheered too, if he were a Habs fans. Given that, as a fan, “you’re paying money, spending hours and emotionally connecting with a sport in which one side is trying to physically punish the other into submission,” it’s okay to cheer an opposing player’s injury. “In the moment,” that is, when the intensity of play and rivalry might be expected to blur the line between athletic competition and actual battle. Afterwards, though, the reasonable fan will reflect on this moment with guilt and embarrassment, especially if the player in question turns out to be seriously injured. According to Wyshynski, “if I cheer an injured player and he ends up really, really injured, I feel terrible about it. Like, ‘where do I send the flowers and the apology card’ terrible.”
Wyshynski deserves credit for writing this piece. Rooting for injuries, he claims, is “part of my fandom. If that makes me a classless, insulting scumbag, then I’ll carry the membership card.” He is also right that “there’s too much politically motivated hypocrisy on fan behavior for me not to be honest with you.” The debate over violence in hockey is more well served by this kind of honesty than by moral grandstanding, because Wyshynski’s piece offers us an opportunity to discuss the very natural and understandable motivation behind fans’ appreciation of violence. At the same time, the fact that rooting for violence comes naturally for some does not mean it should be condoned. Professional hockey will, and should, retain a fair bit of violence no matter what, due to the nature of the game. And because violence–in the form of checking–is integral to the game, fans will, and should, cheer on solid checks that help their team gain an advantage. And yes, injuries will occur from these checks, but you can’t mitigate against injuries that occur within the rules the game?
But is it too much to expect fans to keep a level head about this? I don’t think so, and I think Wyshynski sets the bar too low in that respect. This is where Wyshynski’s off base: he recognizes the natural draw to violence, then accepts it because, well, it’s natural. He ends his piece by contrasting the incident in Montreal with one in Boston during the finals last year. Then, Mason Raymond was down on the ice, and it looked (and was) serious. The fans, instead of cheering, grew quiet in respect for the injured. Instead of just throwing that out as a contrast, as Wyshynski does, why not set that up as a standard? Instead, we get this, posted on the same day: a video of a CHL brawl in which one goalie sucker punches the other, hard. After the fact the offending goalie regretted his actions, saying “it was the heat of the moment” and that he wishes he just “tied up” the other goalie instead of “coming in with fists flying.” But, presumably speaking for Puck Daddy, Wyshynski disagrees, telling the goalie, “we’re actually quite happy with the decision you made.” Puck Daddy is not giving this praise “in the moment,” but is celebrating a dirty play well after the fact, for its entertainment value. Why?
Goon: The Last of Hockey’s Tall Tales
Puck Daddy’s excitement over that fight is easily justified using Wyshynski’s defence of cheering injuries: we’re already rooting for our team to “beat” the other team on the scoreboard, so why not cheer for our team’s fighters to actually beat the other team’s? That’s a logical conclusion, except if you consider the gap between metaphorically beating a team and actually landing punches on one another. That gap acts as a double-edged sword. On the one hand you could claim that the two forms of “beating” are only loosely connected, if at all, and so fighting cannot be defended as a natural consequence of the game, thus making it an inappropriate sideshow. On the other hand you could claim that the two are only loosely connected, if at all, and the difference between them is what gives the literal form of “beating” it’s value. The second argument would have it that, instead of making it “barbaric,” the real threat of injury in fighting is what makes it an honourable tradition. That is, while serious injury is always a possible byproduct of the game, the planned consequences of normal hockey competition are only metaphorical, as in they must be represented on the stat sheet with figures. But the consequences of a fight are concrete and immediate, measured in black eyes, broken noses and swollen knuckles. Those consequences, and the risks they insinuate, enhance the draw of fighting, they play into our longing to see the other side get beat, and they make the role of the fighter heroic.
Take Goon, the fighter-centred movie that was recently reviewed on this site. Goon is stupid and formulaic, but it is also self-aware and witty, making it, on the whole, a pretty damn funny movie, aside from overblown fight scenes. The film follows the usual formula, presenting the fighter as the one who puts his body on the line, sacrificing bravely for his teammates’ safety and for the fans’ entertainment. The film’s central character, Doug Glatt, even takes a slap shot to the face to save his team from defeat. Goon does not, in the least, shy away from the brutality of the fighter’s role. In fact, it emphasizes the brutality, to the point that I could hardly even watch most of the fighting scenes, which go on and on and on (just the sound is enough to get the point across). It was vital for the film to approach the fight scenes in this way, because in order for the fighter to be the hero, he has to risk injury and it has to be proven that “this was a real battle.” Accordingly, there are gallons of blood spilled in Goon. I remember in particular the shot of a puck laying in a still pool of blood. The blood is Doug Glatt’s, and it proves his worth; it ups the stakes of his craft, pushing it into heroic, tall tale stature.
This is not all that far from the usual conception of the hockey fighter, who must be able to endure what others cannot, who must be braver than others, who must be something of a legend among normal men–a perception aided by the “he has no skills but made it to the big time with sheer guts” narrative parroted by Goon. In this, the fighter shares something with another controversial performer: the bullfighter. The bullfighter, it is said, must truly face down death if he is to achieve greatness. The unwillingness to face down death honestly leads Hemingway’s Jack Barnes to dismiss all but the young Romero as fakes in his classic novel The Sun Also Rises. Here’s Jack’s explanation
since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technic that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing.
Only the real possibility that the bull can mortally wound the bullfighter makes bull fighting worthwhile, or in Jack’s words, “something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off.” The stakes in hockey fighting are lower than in bullfighting (and there aren’t any animals unwittingly taking part, although Goon’s Doug Glatt is as smart as a golden retriever), but both activities depend on the participant being close to danger. The bullfighter looks death in the eye, wins (mostly) and so the fans look on in awe of that eternal realm he risked entering; the hockey fighter does not look death in the eye in the same way, but he does step on the ice knowing he might spill his own blood, and so he’s taking a step closer to death than is your average player. Goon’s most legendary fighter figure, the veteran goon Ross Rhea, tells Glatt, in a moment of doubt, that spilling blood is all they’re there for. And however much you want to believe Glatt’s counter argument–that the fighter is an honourable role–Rhea’s words continue to ring true, because you’re not a real tough guy unless there’s a picture of you on the internet somewhere covered in blood, for the glory of it. We can stop here, though, and wonder where that glory comes from. Is it inevitable? Or does the fan endow that glory? Are the extended, slow-motion fight scenes in Goon glorified, or are they simply emphasized? That depends on the viewer.
I once penned an article for the Detroit Free Press favourably comparing the Red Wings to Romero, the glorious fighter from The Sun Also Rises. But looking back on it now, I made a false comparison. Hemingway’s point was that Romero’s art was pure because he really risked death. In my analogy, this was akin to the Red Wings playing a skill-based game, as opposed to the gimmicky traps and whatnot that marred the pro game through the 90s and much of the aughts. But while in both cases there is a right way and a cheap way to win, the Red Wings were only risking losses, not death. Hockey is game, after all, while bullfighting is a deadly art. But in the game within the game, there has to be a threat to the goons’ physical health. There’s no point to fighting if there’s no chance for a broken nose, and, as Wyshynski would argue, it’s natural to want fighting to remain valid.