There has been no shortage of ink spilled in the past weeks about the surprising and upsetting levels of violence that have characterized the 2012 NHL playoffs thus far – including insightful posts from Hockey in Society’s E. Martin Nolan about psychosocial understandings of hockey violence and the fantastical nature of “hatred” between players.
NHL VP of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan has certainly been a busy man during these playoffs, handing down suspensions to eight players and fining two other players. The standard of discipline has varied wildly, with Shea Weber getting just a $2,500 fine for slamming Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the boards and Raffi Torres receiving a 25-game suspension for a leaping hit that sent Marian Hossa off the ice on a stretcher. The level of violence, which to most observers seems unusually high even for the emotionally-charged playoff season, has created a moral panic about the state of hockey and an unsurprising bevy of counterarguments from entrenched interests in the sport. At the same time, television ratings have soared in spite (or because) of the on-ice violence.
While I sympathize with the crusaders at the vanguard of the moral panic, my optimism about their ability to fundamentally alter NHL hockey is limited. As this post will explore, the NHL has a tightly controlled and insular culture that militates against outside interference. While some influential media members may hold some sway in the NHL boardrooms, it is hard not to see the league swatting away much of the outrage with minimal damage to its brand or popular integrity.
The moral panic about hockey violence (and its flaws)
Like I said, I share the views of many anti-violence crusaders in hockey. However, I do not always agree with their reasoning or the fact that, presumably to reach a more popular audience, they draw upon dubious reasoning to make their case (I am not above editorializing, and I recognize this fact – however, I hope that my use of evidence is not as poor as many on both sides of the popular debate about violence in sport). Typifying the moral panic side of the debate are these comments from David Johnston, the Governor General of Canada:
When our kids see this beautiful game where the idea is to injure someone, or to escalate the level of conflict every time the play stops, it’s just not the way we raise our children. And so that worries me. Particularly because it’s such a beautiful game. . . .
The head shots and the fighting have no place in it. Canadians are people who are quite tenacious and quite competitive. But we are conflict-resolving people. We seek the peaceful outcome. We don’t seek confrontation. We’ve never had wars in our history. Canadians are people who conduct themselves in highly civilized fashion.
While I admire Governor General Johnston as an individual, and agree with some of the sentiments he expresses, I cannot accept his argument that there is some inherent, peace-loving nature to Canadians to which hockey violence is the antithesis. As for his claims about Canadians being a civilized people who have never engaged in warfare or confrontation? Yeah, not so much. Unfortunately, such moral grandstanding, to say nothing of the use of selective and paper-thin evidence, does little to further the cause of the anti-violence movement in sport.
Similarly, Ralph Nader – a concerned and committed fan, who appears completely genuine in his desire to see progressive ideals applied to sport – relies on sensationalist rhetoric to criticize the NHL’s unwillingness to seriously crack down on violent play. In an April 18 open letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Nader drops the “E-word” of moral panics by referring to “an epidemic of fights and cheap shots” and criticizes the “stone-age mentality in the NHL.” While Nader makes some excellent points – I particularly agree with his assertion that the “entire NHL culture needs to be changed when it comes to condoning blows to the brain” – he relies as heavily on unsubstantiated rhetoric as do passionate defenders of violence in hockey. Ultimately, Nader’s letter does little beyond the symbolic to enact change in the culture of NHL hockey.
The NHL has weathered a number of moral panics since its inception. For example, check out this news report from 1987, which is very similar in tone to some of the outrage being expressed about the 2012 playoffs:
15 years, and a huge amount of research about the consequences of hockey violence, later, the NHL remains as resistant as ever to significant change. This raises some important questions. Why do criticisms from people outside the NHL’s culture fail to register with the league? How does the NHL create buffers against outside interference in its internal affairs? What external and internal pressures might be powerful enough to shift the NHL’s approach to the regulation and punishment of violence? I explore these questions below, with reference to key points raised by the 2012 NHL playoffs.
The NHL operates by its own rules doesn’t care about external criticism*
I have written previously about the concept of the total institution and its impact on hockey culture. I am indebted in this discussion to the research of sociologists Michael Atkinson (University of Toronto) and Kevin Young (University of Calgary), who have both written extensively and insightfully about sport violence. In short, the culture of a total institution is insular and internally regulated – think, for example, of the culture of the military in which outside criticism is ignored and discipline is enacted through internal mechanisms. In their book Deviance and Social Control in Sport,  Atkinson and Young describe how the NHL has acted over time to develop a self-regulated culture that has buy-in from its participants and to frame violence as a normal and non-threatening aspect of the sport. Furthermore, the researchers explain how outside intrusions into the self-regulated culture of hockey (such as court cases) typically reemphasize the NHL’s ability to police itself; and describe how fan consent to player violence legitimizes it as an aspect of the sport.
The NHL’s total institutional characteristics have been on full display in these playoffs, particularly in the rhetoric coming from both the league and its management, coaches and players. Take, for example, Commisioner Bettman’s recent reaction to teams’ complaints about inconsistent standards of discipline, as quoted in the New York Times’ hockey blog Slap Shot:
Betttman referred to the beginning of the playoffs as “incredibly intense and passionate” and did not think this year’s postseason was unusual in terms of violence, saying, “It’s not the first time we’ve seen this in the first round of the playoffs.” . . .
“If you want to advocate taking hitting out of the game, then you’re talking about changing the game fundamentally, and I don’t think anybody is suggesting that.” . . .
Even with dozens of players sidelined with concussions this season and the heightened awareness of the brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head, Bettman did not seem concerned about facing litigation from former players as the N.F.L. has.
“I’ve read the allegations in the N.F.L. lawsuit and I don’t think those are applicable to us,” he said, emphasizing that the N.H.L. has made player safety a priority for years.
Bettman, in these statements, demonstrates a huge amount of confidence in the NHL to adequately police violence within the sport. By emphasizing the intensity and passion of the 2012 playoffs, he downplays the violent acts that have taken place and implies that they are simply products of an exciting playoff environment (Brian Burke did likewise in commenting on the 2012 playoffs). By stating that the removing physical play would “fundamentally” alter the sport, Bettman suggests that violence is inherent to hockey and that incidents that cross the line of acceptable violence are an unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of the game’s nature. Finally, by dismissing concerns about long-term damage to players from physical contact, Bettman both downplays the significance of these injuries and claims (without providing any evidence) that the NHL “has made player safety a priority for years.”
Taken together, these statements contribute to a powerful discourse in which hockey violence is downplayed as unfortunate but inevitable, in which the NHL has the situation under control and has the best interests of players in mind, and in which taking steps to address player violence through stronger regulation would strip hockey of its excitement and fundamentally alter the game for the worse.
It’s not just Bettman who has been contributing to these discourses. Figures such as Brian Burke and Philadelphia Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette have made similar statements to Bettman. Meanwhile, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, responding to questions about headshots between the and San Jose Sharks, called the playoff series “organized chaos” and stated that “boys will be boys.” Such comments contribute to the normalization of dangerous play in hockey by suggesting that, while hockey may appear dangerous to non-participants, insiders know that the chaos is controlled and acceptable. Furthermore, the “boys will be boys” justification not only draws on gendered stereotypes and erroneous assumptions about sport as an outlet for “natural” aggression, it also contributes to the notion that hockey violence in inevitable.
Taken together, all of these statements and discourses make build buffers against outside criticism of the league and its culture—despite what some media pundits, fans, or medical or sociological experts might say, the NHL remains immune to criticism and continues to operate by its own rules. The culture of a total institution is hard to access without adhering to its values, and is therefore incredibly difficult to change from the outside.
*Unless it results in a loss of revenue (That is, money talks)
One powerful outside interest that could force a change in the NHL’s culture is the league’s corporate sponsors. Bruce Dowbiggen reported that the NHL had recently been contacted from some of its sponsors, who were concerned with the optics of associating their brand with a violent on-ice product:
According to John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, the league is hearing from its business partners over the rash of suspensions and fines.
“They’re paying us a lot of money to associate with our brand,” said Collins. . . . “So when our brand is under attack in the press on issues as serious as player safety, they want to know that the league is on top of it and has a plan for dealing with it and hear the league articulate it. . . .
“It affects the business, our ability to attract new fans, to grow the business, to attract other blue-chip advertisers and brands (who want) to associate with the game. . . . It also affects our ability to attract casual fans who maybe haven’t watched all year and now they’re hearing the buzz about the game. “
This corporate recoiling at extreme hockey violence is not new. Last year, following the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara’s brutal and injurious hit on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens, Air Canada’s Director of Communications/Marketing released a letter questioning the NHL’s commitment to player safety and stating that:
From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, it is becoming increasingly difficult to associate our brand with sports events which could lead to serious and irresponsible accidents.
If such threats were more than idle, the NHL might have cause for concern. The league’s popularity is on the upswing and its television ratings have been steadily increasing in the US. Losing corporate support at such a moment could be devastating for the league’s momentum. Money talks, and it may be the only external voice to which the NHL is willing to listen.
However, if money talks it does so on a two-way street. The NHL is a desirable commodity for many corporations to associate their brand with, and it would presumably take a much higher level of violence for companies to bail on the league. Furthermore, should some sponsors choose to abandon their NHL sponsorship, new companies will undoubtedly jump at the chance to be affiliated with the league. The popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship shows that violence can sell, and that there are plenty of corporate interests willing to be associated with a violent spectacle.
Corporations, along with the law (which has historically shied away from interfering with the NHL’s on-ice affairs) and fans (many of whom buy wholeheartedly into the violence of hockey), are probably the best-positioned outside interest to influence the culture of hockey’s total institution because of their ability to impact the NHL’s bottom-line. However, such a move seems unlikely in the immediate future.
Could NHL players lead a shift in hockey’s cultural attitude toward violence?
One interesting development in the recent rash of violent acts in hockey has been the number of players who are speaking out against what is happening on the ice. James Mirtle had a good piece in the Globe and Mail earlier this week that highlighted some of the NHL stars who are speaking out against headshots and dangerous play, including Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings, and David Perron of the Blues. Mirtle touches on the fact that because the NHL condones violence it can thus have a tough time differentiating between legitimate and illegitimate acts of on-ice violence:
The fine line between acceptable violence and suspendable violence that Perron talks about is often difficult to find for this league, and you only have to look at how many suspensions they’ve whiffed on in the (recent) past to see that in action.
Mirtle goes on to explain that players are becoming increasingly worried about the levels of violence, particularly headshots that can potentially leave devastating and lingering brain damage:
The truth is many, many players don’t want a no holds barred league – and it’s often those who have suffered serious concussions, like Toews and Perron, who are speaking out.
They want to keep the hits and keep the physicality without having to risk brain injury as the result of the types of acts going on night after night the past week.
Even Scott Hartnell of the Flyers, no stranger to rough play and fighting, criticized the direction of the Pittsburgh Penguins/Flyers series after Game 3, as reported by Bruce Arthur:
They were going after a couple of our guys’ heads. . . . It’s scary when it comes down to that level. You ask the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, what they’re thinking over there. “That’s playoff hockey.” For me, that’s not playoff hockey, that’s not hockey in my book. That is dangerous hockey. They were just trying to hurt people.
Hartnell’s comments, of course, must be taken with a grain of salt given his failure to criticize his own team’s actions. And there are certainly plenty of players who seem quite happy with the style of play thus far in the playoffs. Nonetheless, it seems that a growing number of player voices from within the culture of hockey’s total institution are starting to agitate for changes in the way the game is played and regulated.
This leads to another interesting question: can a player-led movement force the NHL to change how it defines, polices, and punishes violence? Allan Muir suggests that this could happen if the NHL Player’s Association (NHLPA) makes player safety a key issue in this summer’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations:
When the league’s own website features news of *four* suspensions simultaneously, it’s clear that its confusingly inconsistent attempts to legislate respect are failing. It’s going to take a different approach.
The PA needs to negotiate for a more active role in the disciplinary process. Not just a seat at the table, but perhaps two on a three-man committee that metes out the sort of justice that leaves no room for interpretation: clean up your act, or shop your limited skills elsewhere.
Muir points to the ways that players could use the NHLPA to leverage their collective power to enact change in the sport and to how the CBA negotiations offer a window to redress some of the issues arising from dangerous and violent play. However, even if players do lead the charge to reduce on-ice violence, it will do little to change the unassailability of the NHL as a total institution. Any NHL player has been playing hockey for decades, has been socialized into hockey’s subculture, and has—to varying degrees—accepted the violent aspects of the sport they play. While the players may be able to shift the culture within the total institution, it will remain an internal process that is negotiated and enacted with complete disregard for outside expertise or opinion.
Hopefully the players and the NHLPA are able to provide a necessary push for change. However, they will do little to shift the broader power structures that affect the way that professional hockey is regulated, and will simply confirm the fact that only those within the culture are empowered to shape the direction of the sport. It seems that even a tidal wave of moral panic will have a difficult time creating cracks in the imposing façade of the NHL’s total institution.
 Michael Atkinson and Kevin Young. (2008). Deviance and Social Control in Sport. Windsor, ON: Human Kinetics.