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The question of violence in NHL hockey

Posted by oldnews, 16 June 2011 · 452 views

I wrote the following yesterday morning. I decided not to post it because it seemed more like an issue that should be re-opened in the off-season not buried in the wake of game 7. But in light of what happened on the streets after the game, I think the questions raised become even more timely and relevant. Is it merely a coincidence? The violence in the game of hockey cannot be held responsible for the rioting and violence that took place on the streets, but there will be people who try to completely dissociate the two, and it is not that uncomplicated - one cannot realistically be simply separated from the other. Regardless, it is the violence on the ice that is the issue I am trying to deal with here.


The NHL in my opinion needs to engage more deeply with the question of what is the acceptable level of violence in NHL hockey.
What happens in the NFL or CFL if players throw punches at an opponent? You are ejected from the game - and probably suspended. What happens in NBA basketball? What happens in MLBaseball? Soccer? Is it really necessary to go through all the other sports? Is there not enough violence in the NHL game, without the additional violence - that other sports do not permit - that takes place after the play or the whistle?

The NHL, by virtue of its' rules and how it exercises discipline, condones fist-fighting in a way that no other sport considers sensible. It permits players to return to a game five-minutes after dropping their gloves. It is argued that this must be permitted or violence in other forms, like stick-violations, will increase, and that anyone who advocates stricter penalties and game suspensions for fighting don't understand the game. I personally feel that is a non-sense argument and that the league needs to take a clear stance that it will not continue to be tolerated. What happens in other sports? The NFL is arguably as violent a game as NHL hockey, and yet they manage for the most part to keep the play between the whistles.

There are fighting sports. In fight sports, the combatants are fighters - that is their profession, it is their choice to compete and there are parameters that do not allow for fighting without gloves. Most of us watch hockey to watch hockey, and would continue to do so without the fighting and scrumming.

Injuries are costing the NHL dearly. But they are costing the injured players even more. Their minds, bodies and futures are seriously injured on a regular basis and have been for generations. Isn't there enough risk of injury in the NHL within the parameters of the game? The toughness of people who are able to play at the NHL level should not be questioned yet there is an expectation that to really measure up, a player must be able to take the extra curricular intent to injure that is so much a part of the game. Athletes in other sports realize that to fight means getting thrown out of a game - they are there specifically to play that game - so the incidents are much, much less frequent than in hockey. I am sure that hockey players are sophistocated enough that if the standards were equalized across sports, they could and would adapt - and the sport may even prosper more, especially if players are healthier. This is hockey - it is not war, or life - I won't call it evolution, but it could stand to change a little.

If the NHL wants to get rid of scrums after the whistle it can create a penalty for engaging a player on the other team - call it delay of game, because that is what it is, and it is a strategy used by teams to not only slow down the game when a fast, skilled team is skating them into exhaustion, but also shift the centre of gravity from hockey skill to violence and intimidation.

I grew up all accross Canada, with lots of hockey players as friends. It seems to me that the players who have the hardest time are the biggest, toughest guys. The guys I have known grew up wanting to play hockey - to make it to the next level generally meant not only being able to skate well, but increasingly being required to provide toughness and intimidation. The body is the sacrifice. But the requirement to provide "toughness" and to go out and face ever-escalating sizes of opponents who are also required to lay down the law - it doesn't seem fair to these guys. What is the effect upon the players who respect and care about their opponents, but have seriously injured one of them? What is the effect on players who are expected to always be prepared for a fist-fight? There are some guys who can perform this role and appear to survive it, but for the most part, and without listing a bunch of tough guys who are examples, many of these guys experience a great deal of hell on a day to day basis. And the irony of this role - to "lay down the law" - is that is and should be the job of a third party, the officials.

Why are players required to be subject to this ratchetting up of the level of extra-curricular violence? While there are people who consider this a necessary reality in the game, it isn't really anyone's fault - it has been a part of the game and hockey culture. But should it persist? What is the actual law in all the hockey jurisdictions regarding fist-fighting? Are hockey playing surfaces extra-legal territories, where the jurisdiction of Constitutional, Federal, Provincial or State laws do not apply? I am personally surprised that law-enforcement officials or an attorney-general in one jurisdiction or another have never stepped in and instructed the NHL to clean up its act where assaults on the ice are concerned. We are a rule of law society after all - or at least perceive ourselves as such. But as important as the cultural effects are - the HEADS of the players are literally as important - their eyes, brains, noses, teeth, etc, need to be considered as important as the promotion/tolerance of violence within hockey culture. Why is this such a threatening question within hockey? The lines of what is acceptable levels of violence are very blurry in the NHL. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of all of the concussions suffered... in my mind, the issue is a serious one that needs to be redressed. There is a lot of talk about suspending players for head shots - yet there is no talk of changing the rule that you get a mere five minutes for the repeated intent and attempt to deliver bare-fisted head shots to your opponent.

The rules of the game also suffer the same sort of blurred vision. I watched an entire season of hockey supporting a team that was built to win in the new NHL. The way the game was called all season long and the rule changes in the modern NHL took a backseat in the playoffs as officiating reverted back and forth from recent standards to Old time standards. In the end, the team I support lost to a team better equipped to win the Old time style of hockey - and on a certain level that is a genuine rip-off. The kind of hockey we were used to seeing was arbitrarily replaced with a reversion to letting-it-go. To listen to all the criticisms of players who could not constantly "step-up" or remain healthy in the midst of all of it, who were unable to perform to the peak of their abilities, was simply mundane. It was plain bland. I am prepared to lose all interest if this is the future of the NHL. The physical disrespect that players dish out, the disrespect in the commentary of media, and the disrespect of officials who make the rules a subjective matter which fluctuate from day to day - all in the end at the expense of players like the Sedins - this is not something that I personally intend ton continue to commit my time to without some sort of reality check and commitment on the part of the NHL to maintain what at present are merely pretenses of progress. The Stanley Cup final simply got out of hand - officials simply did not do the job they had been expected to do all season long. It was not the case of individual referees performing poorly - it was the general reality - if people think this does not effect the integrity of the game they are fooling themselves.

When it comes to the "product", all the extra-curricular non-sense certainly reduces my enjoyment of it - it makes me question my engagement in and with hockey - and I think it has a similar widespread effect on many people - particularly those who have not been naturalized into the Old-time hockey culture. That is an important question the NHL must ask itself if the NHL actually hopes or intends to expand the base of its fans. It is also a question the NHL should ask itself for ethical reasons - the players health and the effect on the larger culture are very important matters that are being put on the back-burner in favour of "letting-it-go." I love to watch the game of hockey - I don't love to see the players being injured, regardless of who they play for, - and I like to see a game where the game itself is at the forefront, not obscured by all the effects of extra-curricular liberties. The NHL needs to start doing more - perhaps everything it can - to preserve the health and longevity of it's players. And it needs to take a serious look at the integrity of the game - defending it in a state of denial is not really defending the integrity of the game - it is risking it. This debate or plea to reduce the levels of violence is not the equivalent of advocating taking the tough guys out of hockey. It is advocating keeping the players in the game - and the NHL admninstration needs to step up themselves and do what is right for the game, the players, the fans and the culture - not to mention the kids that are watching...

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Very well written. I personally feel the after whistle crap has to stop. It adds nothing to the game and the players that excel at it are just goons, plain and simple. Anybody that slashes, punches, face washes another player after the whistle gets a penalty. It would clean this up in no time and would bring us a much more enjoyable product.
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