By E. Martin Nolan
An Open Letter to NHL Players
Brad Marchand: “The more we play each other, the more we hate each other.”
Sidney Crosby: “I hate everyone on their team.”
Dear NHL Players,
Think about how people see you for a second. From the most skeptical perspective, you are grown men playing a game. You are millionaires with a union (which protects the players injuring others from suspension, as opposed to protecting the injured. That’s fucked up). You are mercenaries who fool the populace into thinking that you are playing for them, when really, why would you need that? Sure, you work hard, but you are more than well rewarded for that, and, need we remind you, you are working hard in pursuit of a game. I don’t subscribe to that view, although there is definitely validity to it, and it does describe certain players. Still, I prefer to think of you as masters of your craft, world class performers and artists, incredible entertainers that earn their millions, just like Brad Pitt or Adele.
But even if we see you in that more dignified light, you are still operating in a fantasy realm. What you are known for is not real. It ends after a horn, and can only happen within an area clearly limited by the boards. What you do is as real as theatre. But unlike (most) theatre, you are writing the script as you perform, and so in your performance you determine the nature of the fake reality you are creating. So if you want to treat the game as a realm in which brutal violence is permissible, then you can do that, and you have been. This is pathetic and depressing (I would want my money back if I paid to see that Pens-Flyers debacle), but it obviously works in the context in which you operate (and it sells, although how long that can last is open to debate. The NHL wants the playoffs to be like March Madness right? Does that sell based on the violence it permits?). On the other hand, If you want to approach your game as dignified but dedicated professionals who understand that the goal is to outplay and outcheck your opponent, acknowledging that there are certain rules of common decency that should be followed, while allowing that mistakes will be made, injuries will happen, but both should be purposely limited, then you can do that too. It’s up to you.
However, both of the above understandings of the game EXIST IN FANTASY, IN THE REALM OF PLAY. It is a very important fantasy to many people, and it is fine (I would argue awesome) to take it very seriously and get all the real emotional payoff, aesthetic pleasure and dramatic thrill out of it that you can. But even if you can feel real things and get real value from this fantasy, it is still a fantasy. As such, there is a certain level of distance you should maintain from it.
Therefore, you should not be using serious words like “hate” to describe your rivalries. Hate is a real thing, people get killed for what that word represents. You don’t hate the Flyers, Sidney Crosby, you want to beat them in a game. And Brad Marchand, just shut the hell up and play the game right. Because once you realize that what you do is essentially cut off from reality, but that it can, via injuries, affect reality, you might notice that it’s damn silly, and tragic, for someone to get seriously injured as the result of something happening in a game. And you might notice that this supposed “hatred” you have for one another impacts how you play on the ice, in that you are more likely to elbow a dude in the head if you’re thinking you “hate” him, as opposed to just competing against him, however passionately.
Because what happens in this fantasy realm can affect people in the real world, what happens there can really matter. Which means the attitude you approach the game with matters. You are setting an example, remember, of how to try hard while maintaining your dignity and that of the game, as well as of respecting others in the context of competition. Therefore, the words you use matter, because they define that attitude. I doubt it’s any coincidence that this word, hate, is popping up in dirty series. Both the word and the related actions on the ice are out of step with the true nature of the game. Because, while you might be able to construe the game as a venue for senseless and dangerous violence, given the pliable nature of a fantasy, or play, realm, it’s clearly ridiculous and silly to do so once you’ve realized that you’ve made the conscious choice to make the game that way.
Why would you want to do that? Do you also want a concussion, your for your good friend and teammate to suffer one? Or do you want earn you bragging rights because you were simply better than the other side?
This doesn’t apply to all players, but it does to far too many: show some dignity, play the game, and grow up. The Hockey Gods will know if you did this right or not.
You don’t hate each other. So stop acting like it. At best, you play hate each other, like children playing house. Children, too, have great minds for fantasy. It is contingent upon their parents to teach them the difference between that and real life. Need we do the same for you?
E Martin Nolan