Violence in Sports (Well, Ice Hockey)

I cannot speak to certain games like American football. Do I have an opinion? Sure. Something remains to be said about the lived experience of having played, and other than some brief exposure (my high school coach wanted my soccer leg for field goals, but I injured my hip flexor) I have no real experience with the game.

I do, however, have considerable experience with ice hockey – my favourite sport. It goes beyond the superficial: knowledge of the positions, how to play, what on earth “icing” is. I learned the mental side of the game. I learned how skating to certain positions without the puck would realign the defence and create space for my teammates. I learned the importance of timely line changes to shape momentum. I learned the subtle art of gamesmanship, like “legal interference” where one is just sort of in the way of an opponent.

I also learned violence.

Ice hockey starts out simply for children. One must first learn how to skate – not much sense to anything else if one cannot move about the ice surface effectively. That expands to more advanced skating drills and rudimentary stick work like shooting and passing.

It eventually grows to involve contact.

Now, the first thing people must understand about hockey is that the term “checking” applies broadly, more broadly than the leisure fan would apply. When one hears the term checking in a hockey context, we tend to imagine someone get crushed between the boards and another player or someone knocked abruptly to the ice.

To check someone is to impede their free movement, rather like the political sense of checks and balances. One would not want the other team moving about and exerting their will because that would result in no offensive capability. When the other team has the puck, one’s job is to impede their progress legally. That involves the occasional big hit, but it also includes subtler things like skating backwards in front of a puck carrier and sweeping. It involves skating between two players to deny passing opportunities. It involves trying to poke away the puck from their stick. It involves minor contact to separate the opposing player from the puck. That’s the aim: assume and retain possession.

It ought to be said at this point that we do enter the realm of gamesmanship once again. As a baseball pitcher may throw a hard fastball intentionally inside at a hitter to make them nervous and create room on the outside of the plate, contact in hockey has a mental role. As an opposing team crosses the blue line into the offensive zone, encountering aggressive physical play may cause them to doubt or rush their play. One is only going to skate across the middle of the ice and get walloped so many times before one stops.

Players will always flirt with the boundaries of legal play. As an offensive player, I endured my share of uncalled cross checks, trips, hooks, and other interference intended to intimidate and harass rather than to defend. It’s an effective defensive tool to disrupt focus and even cause players to take foolish retaliatory penalties.

To this end, the official rules of the game reflect precisely what they should. Any more severe and the game would lose its essence. Players would be too restricted in their movements.

However, players often cross well over that line. To make matters worse, ice hockey has an unwritten code (not unlike other sports) and transgressions of those rules invite further violence. The players most responsible for enforcing this code are called, well, enforcers (or, colloquially, goons). They have gone down in number in recent years, but many teams possess at least one, loved by the local crowd and despised by all others.

The trouble with these goons is that their presence proliferates the very problem they exist to mitigate.

If a star player on my team skates across the middle of the ice and looks down at the puck, such as to receive a pass, a defensive player will see the vulnerable player and level as big a legal hit as possible. I have no objection to that, and I say that as the guy who was often the vulnerable offensive player. The whole idea was that I would bring my agility, speed, and accuracy to bear against their goal. What an opposing team absolutely cannot do is stand around while I get myself situated. Head down with the puck – get hit.

If I am a star offensive player though, this goes against the code. “Do not hit our stars.” The impact would invite the wrath of my teammates, and this is the important bit, even if the original hit was perfectly legal.

Let’s regard the following video:

The very first hit by Beauchmin on Anisimov is a good example. That was a clean, hard hit that resulted in a brawl because Blue Jackets took exception to seeing their star hit.

Second hit, same thing: hard hit by the Toronto defence against a Senator crossing the ice with his head down followed by a swift reaction from the other Ottawa players.

The point of this piece is not that we need to anesthetise the game. The video has several legal hits and that has a place in the game. What has no place in the game is the fighting that results after the fact.

“Fighting is necessary for players to police themselves.”

This is the most cited argument for why fighting should be allowed in the game (the only sport where fist fights do not results in immediate expulsion and possible suspension). If a player were to deliver a crushing hit to an opponent and then officials lobbied stricter penalties against the retaliating teammates, it would leave players open to violent hits. The presence of fighting is accepted as a deterrent to harsher play during live action.

Yet what we find is that fighting is a normal response to legal hits. Fighting is even a means of shifting momentum in a game. In some mic’d up situations, fans can hear players talking casually about fighting, asking an opponent if they “want to go,” respecting their decision, and then thanking one another after the fight (though I do appreciate this touch of sportsmanship, like professional fighters showing respect).

It contradicts the idea that fighting exists as a reactionary deterrence to other violence. Fights break out after such violence occurred anyway, they break out in legal situations where there is no call, and they break in situations where no other violence occurred.

This is all just the fighting. We have not even touched on situations where the contact, legal or not, is excessive. A player has the puck and prepares to pass. An opposing player sees a puck carrier and decides to level a hit against them – at this point the hit is already unnecessary as the puck carrier has possession and means to pass. The purpose of checking, to separate body from puck and impede the offence, is already gone.

Legally though, the opposing player is within their rights to hit a puck carrier, including finishing a check already initiated in the moments after that player releases the puck. So what do we find? Players taking unnecessary runs for the sole purpose of trying to inflict damage. The goal is not to injure, at least not in the majority of cases, but still to hit the opposing player as hard as possible.

It serves no purpose in the game. The player already released the puck, so it does not separate body from puck. Again, the player already passed so it does not have the effect of gamesmanship to instill fear or doubt in the player. It does not impede the offence as the play proceeds with the puck now in possession of another skater. If anything, it serves to motivate additional violence as players respond to that initial hit.

Worse yet, we return to the idea of the goon. Teams possess players who skate with that specific purpose: get under their skin and protect teammates. These are often the players who level such hits against the opposing team, which is why opposing fans hate them. They are also the players to respond to such hits, which is why fans often love their local goon.

The paradox should be clear now though: without the presence of a goon against which to defend, a goon is unnecessary. They exist because they exist, like nuclear weapons. While the home team will maintain the argument that they only possess a goon to protect against the presence of other goons (the way “responsible” nations only possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent), that theoretical attitude creates the practical issue of goons existing. Each home team points to the others as practical evidence for their hypothetical case.

A tragedy for many of the goons is that their careers began as promising hockey players. The fell, either through skillset or circumstance, into the role of goon at some point and could only continue progressing towards the NHL by fulfilling that role. Had a player like Daniel Carcillo decided that he wanted to be a skills player like Pavel Datsyuk, he never would have made an NHL roster. He had the toughness to play the enforcer role, and made his money that way.

While it’s easy to vilify the goons if one is opposed to violence in hockey, they have my sympathy. They are, at heart, dedicated hockey players who care about the game. They want to score the Game 7 goal and lift the Stanley Cup like any child who dreams of playing in the NHL one day. Life escorted them down a violent path for the sake of the game in a league that, frankly, incentivised it.

The violence has a morbid appeal to people that I do understand. It’s a natural thing that we try to repress in a civilised society, so we have a degree of fascination seeing it in controlled situations like sport. How many boxing or MMA “fans” are genuine fans of the sport and how many want to see two people pummel one another? There’s a reason Olympic boxing does not have the same following as say a Tyson-Holyfield fight even though the Olympic boxers would display a degree of technical proficiency rarely seen in the sport. (Not to say professional boxers are not technically proficient – just that the motivation for the average viewer is violence rather than sport).

There is a human cost to this though. These are not fictional characters; they are not cartoons. The effect of such an impact on the human body is significant, especially impact to the head. No degree of protective equipment can mitigate that. In fact, my layperson assessment of the situation is that the advanced safety equipment created the spike in cases. Why? It lessens the feeling of the impact.

The issue is the physics. Let us compare a hockey hit to a car accident. Old cars, like old hockey equipment, had the integrity of the car in mind. For younger readers unfamiliar, ask a parent or grandparent about their first car. They were tanks. If a driver hit something, the car sustained minor damage but the driver would be thrown through the windshield.

With newer cars, engineers finally came around to the idea that the car should collapse to absorb the impact of the hit, like modern hockey equipment. It does do a fantastic job of absorbing and distributing the impact of the hit.

Inside of a hockey helmet is a person’s head, and inside the person’s head is a brain. That adds another layer to the impact. When the player’s head jolts to a stop with the impact, the player’s brain does not. Like a passenger in an older car thrown into the windshield, the brain gets thrown into the skull. No amount of protective equipment will prevent that because the player’s skull stops abruptly with the hit but the brain will continue moving in the same direction and with the same speed until an outside force (impact with the skull) stops it.

Like the NFL, professional hockey has a massive CTE problem proliferated by the insistence that players “police themselves” using this code – a code already described to itself proliferate violence because players retaliate against legal hockey plays out of a toxic sense of honour.

The correct response to policing this sort of violence in the NHL, or any sport, is stricter penalties for offenders. Players causing this sort of violence should not sit for 2, 4, or 5 minute penalties but should receive immediate dismissal from the game and consideration for further suspension. Egregious offences and repeat offenders, those who currently received extended suspensions, should instead receive expulsion from the league. That would reflect zero tolerance and police player safety in a way that also discourages retaliatory violence.

The NHL would go for this about as eagerly as professional boxing or MMA organisations would adopt the mandated use of protective gear for participants. Would nearly as many people tune in to see Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder square off if required to wear the protective headgear worn in the Olympics? No, because for many fans the interest is not in their technical proficiency, which remain the same, but rather in the hope of seeing someone knocked out.

Anyone asking the question, “if we remove fighting and enforce stricter penalties on illegal hits in hockey, what is left?” does not understand the game. Literally everything is left.

Ten professional skaters and two goaltenders occupy a space slightly larger than a standard basketball court. They travel at speeds upwards of 20 mph (30 mph for some) chasing a puck that can travel in excess of 100 mph. Play does not stop unless absolutely necessary. Within these confines, athletes establish plays and display levels of creativity to score goals.

It has the athleticism and strategy of any sport, but occurs at a speed seen in none of them. I take nothing away from NFLers. That game is demanding and physical. That said, they reset after each play and typically play on only one side of the ball. Hockey is demanding and physical, but it’s also constant and players must cover offence and defence. Even more impressive is that they do it several times a week, sometimes on consecutive nights.

This is not to take away from other sports. It’s not a pissing contest to determine if ice hockey, American football, or MMA is the toughest. They all require a degree of incredible athletic toughness. The point is that the absence of brutal violence from the athletics does not detract from the sport itself. If anything, it frees up participants to display that athleticism to greater degree. Fewer careers would end prematurely and in some cases, like football, perhaps we might even be able to enjoy more games in a season.

The question of violence in hockey or indeed in any sport is up to the “fans” to demonstrate their love of the game and support league administration to take action against unnecessary violence. So long as leagues require money to operate and money remains tied to fans and fans remain dedicated to witnessing the violence, none of this will change for the athletes.

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