(This is a companion piece to Violence in Sports (Well, Ice Hockey).)
I step onto the ice and hear the metal clack of my skate blade on the ice, the peaceful scrape as it slides across the surface. Cool air blows across my face like I’m driving with the top down and I can smell the ice. Yes, I can even smell the fetid aroma of oft-used hockey equipment. It’s terrible in a unique way and charming only in its familiarity and association.
The game itself invites a unique mix of everything wonderful about sports. Agility, strength, creativity, precision, dexterity, flexibility, teamwork, and unparalleled speed. It requires the immaculate coordination of hitting a baseball or golf ball with the physicality and strategy of football on a surface the requires its own conditioning and training. Plenty of exceptional athletes cannot stand on the ice, let alone perform at such a high level.
While I love the physicality of sports, it’s the speed and strategy that attracted me the most. Unlike American football, which allows players to reset for set plays with each new down, ice hockey requires that plays develop on the fly. Like football (soccer), it allows only the occasional set play resulting from a stoppage – everything else, including changing players, must occur “on the fly”. Unlike football (which does boast impressive speed for a non-ice activity), ice hockey occurs on a smaller, faster surface.
It’s a beautiful game dating back into the 19th century, brought to its most prominent place in society by the National Hockey League (NHL). It began officially in 1917 and took over as the sole dominant force in professional ice hockey in 1926 with just six teams: the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs (the two founding NHL teams in 1917), Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Detroit Red Wings.
They played this beautiful game and brought with it a fair share of violence. Eddie Shore nearly killed Ace Bailey in 1933 in a retaliatory hit (even though Bailey was not the one who had hit Shore). Boston Bruin Billy Coutu attacked a referee in 1927 resulting in a lifetime ban.
Fighting and hitting have always been a part of professional ice hockey. That needs to be clear.
In 1967, the United States took notice of the success the NHL had with its dedicated fan base and wanted to expand to more US markets. They doubled the league, introducing franchises in Pittsburgh (the Penguins), Los Angeles (the Kings), St. Louis (the Blues), Minnesota (the North Stars, now the Dallas Stars), the Bay Area (the California Seals, I mean Oakland Seals, er, the Bay Area Seals, or California Golden Seals, or was it the Cleveland Barons…who cares, they folded 1978 after all that successful marketing),
And Philadelphia. The Flyers. Or, as the other teams would soon come to know them, the Broad Street Bullies.
See, the historical context here is that the NHL once had a parity problem. During the Original Six era four teams would make the playoffs. That consisted of the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Red Wings, and one other team. The Canadiens won many Stanley Cup titles during that period with Toronto taking many of the others. The teams were not equal.
That continued with the ’67 expansion. Only the Flyers would win the Stanley Cup from among the new crop, and the Flyers-Buffalo Sabres Stanley Cup was the only one that did not feature an Original Six team until the NHL expanded again. Montreal and Toronto continued their dominance with that initial expansion era with one notable exception: Philadelphia.
What was different about Philadelphia? How did this team manage to arrive on the scene and skate better talent than any of the expansion teams, better even than the classics?
Philadelphia immediately adopted a tactic of intimidation to beat opponents. The Spectrum was a raucous place where the so-called Bullies would literally beat their opponents. Opposing players and fans hated the team; skaters feared stepping onto the ice with them, especially in Philadelphia.
It’s no accident that the uniforms featured in the final game in the film Slap Shot are those of the St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers with alternate team names substituted (seriously – the Chiefs are wearing Blues home sweaters with the word Chiefs in place of the music note; the opposition wears the Flyers road sweater).
The Flyers played violent, rough ice hockey against opponents that included plenty of cheap and illegal play. These are not instances of taking advantage of inattentive players to level huge, legal hits as a means of intimidation. These are instances of slashing, slew-footing, and violent fighting, often involving the entire team.
Famously, the Broad Street Bullies so upset the Soviet team (yes, the Soviet team that crushed the NHL All-Stars and appeared in the Miracle on Ice game) that they left the ice and refused to play (“They’re goin’ home!”).
They revolutionised the game, and not in way in which I am proud.
I am a massive ice hockey fan and adopted the Philadelphia Flyers as my team as a boy growing up in the region. Specifically, the highlight of my youth was the Legion of Doom. I knew little of the history of the team at that point, and found myself fascinated by the likes of John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Eric Desjardins, Ron Hextall, Eric Lindros, and so many others. They played hard but were not the ’67 goons.
This is a somewhat difficult piece to write because I also do not mean to disavow the legacy of hockey in Philadelphia. Bernie Parent, Bobby Clarke, Ed Snider: these names mean something important to Flyers hockey.
However, as I referenced in the companion piece and alluded to at the beginning of this one, there is a beauty to this game that the Bullies corrupted. The St. Louis Blues adopted a similar style and, unsurprisingly, became one of the other early Stanley Cup finalists among the new crop. When the Washington Capitals franchise faltered, they found aid in Philadelphia who wanted the regional team to stay afloat. Washington immediately set about rebuilding their team and, yep, became more violent with players like Dale Hunter. I remember Hunter as a great hockey player. I also remember him as the guy who hit Pierre Turgeon for zero reason in the playoffs.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs needed to turn around the franchise in 2008 they introduced Brian Burke as General Manager. One of his first moves? Acquiring the nearly 40-year-old Brad May for the team. In a career with over 2,000 penalty minutes, May’s role was enforcer and Burke acquired to make his team tough.
This is the league that the expansion Flyers helped to create.
It signalled a paradigm shift. As covered in the previous piece, “protection” was already an established part of the game. It’s The Code, like the unwritten rules of baseball. One does not take cheap shots or attempt to injure a player without facing the street justice consequences for those actions. The Code also includes protection for certain players regardless of the legality of the hit.
Level a massive legal hit against a Crosby, Ovechkin, Toews, or Stamkos and it will receive attention from the other team’s enforcer.
The point of the first post was that even this “enforcement” has no place in the game. It creates a Code where violence invites further violence. Opponents to the position offer the same version of the “without enforcers, worse things would happen argument” but the point is zero tolerance for precipitating events. Illegal hit – no minor, no double minor, no major. Game misconduct at minimum, suspension advisable. Demonstrate an inability to play with respect for others’ safety? Banned from the league. That’s the consequence, not knowing that an opposing player will hit back.
The Flyers helped to shift things from protection to intimidation though. It’s why we have a league with guys like Brad Marchand today. To be fair, Marchand is a talented hockey player and I would never deny that. He’s also a dirty player by design. The line between normal physicality and violence is rather clear to all, and Marchand loves to flirt with that line with the specific purpose of agitating opposing teams – not to protect teammates. In the progress he frequently crosses that line.
Remember the McSorley-Brashear incident? After losing a fight to Brashear earlier in the game, McSorley attempted to challenge him to a rematch according to The Code. Brashear spent that time irritating the rest of the Bruins bench, doing his job without committing to a fight that seemed unnecessary to him. This led to McSorley smacking Brashear in the side of the head with his stick, leading to a suspension and criminal charges from which McSorley would never return.
The answer to that is not to allow fighting so that someone could jump McSorley in retaliation to “deter” further violence. The answer would have been to rid the game of Brashear and McSorley earlier with their first fight. More to the point, to rid the game of those players the moment they insisted on intimidating opponents rather than playing hockey.
The Flyers helped to create a league in which the enforcer was necessary. A team could not take a player like Wayne Gretzky or Jaromir Jagr into the Spectrum against the Broad Street Bullies. Those guys would have taken every imaginable liberty with the opponent’s clear offensive weapon. Having tough guys present to protect the skill guys became a necessity.
The NHL supported it by doing nothing to regulate the increase in violence. The answer to the violence of the Flyers, who went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups and end the reign of the Original Six, was nothing, indicating to other teams that they would need to change to compete.
To everyone outside Philadelphia, the Flyers were villains. It sold. It created a storyline that appealed to fans and attracted a new type of fan: the sort who watch boxing hoping that someone gets bludgeoned unconscious or watches NASCAR hoping for a wreck. It became a fabric of the game.
I’m not claiming to be above this as the writer. I have attended many Flyers games in my life and watched the physical play get out of hand, seeing cheap shots issued and received until eventually a fight erupts, at which point one is so invested in the emotion of the game that one wants their guy to win the fight. “Punish these guys for their BS!”
I would like to see games never get to that point though, and the NHL has done a few things to encourage that. Players are not allowed to remove their helmets to fight anymore – a longstanding tradition among enforcers to protect their hands. Indeed, the most common injury in a hockey fight is to the hand, and the head injuries often result from falling to the ice rather than the punching. Forcing players to retain their helmets discourages fighting. The idea that visors might also become mandatory would further discourage fighting.
It still leaves the sport with a marketing problem. Some people view fighting as integral to the game, suggesting that ice hockey without the violence is a boring game.
Yeah, what would the sport be if players focused on plays like those?
Or making saves like those?
Credit also to the Olympics and National Women’s Hockey League if one wants to see some great hockey played. Yes, they have their hits and fights – I’m not suggesting they are immune to physical play – but it does not occur at the problematic level one sees in the NHL and other professional men’s leagues.
If one is indeed a fan of the sport, I don’t know how one could look at the game sans violence and think, “Well, this is boring now.”
In fact, and I say this perhaps because I am a Flyers fan, highlights videos like these indicate what I hope is a growing shift in the sport. The physical teams that rely on hitting do not succeed in today’s game. Successful teams are fast and creative, leaving physical teams in their wake. Take a run at a player and miss in today’s game and one leaves his team at a considerable disadvantage. Teams have focused on getting faster and more creative as a result.
Still, the league boasts its share of continued (or recent) tough guys: Brad Marchand, Sean Avery, Milan Lucic, Jordin Tootoo, Cody McLeod, Dion Phaneuf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, and Daniel Carcillo, to name a few.
The real tragedy is that at least several of those guys can play hockey really well. I think every one of them is better than their stat line, and that is because they spent so much of their time fighting, irritating, and instigating rather than playing hockey. At the very least, they could all play the game at some point before being pushed down the goon path in a league where physical intimidation was “part of the game”.
The NHL should seize on the speed and creativity of modern superstars while condemning (and more severely punishing) acts of violence to further encourage the game down that path. In a league where 31-62 roster spots exist for guys who can throw a punch, that is real estate that one can no longer afford to surrender in a game where speed and hockey skill are paramount.
It would be like a modern baseball team insisting on carrying additional bench players at the expense of bullpen spots. The current game won’t allow for five starters to manage all of the pitching. Roster spots must go to relief pitchers and that means fewer situational players on the bench – they need to be well-rounded ball players to make the cut.
This modern, violence-averse NHL would increase the skill in the game by creating a massive disadvantage to teams insisting on playing the game with a Broad Street mentality. The consequence for violent play is the severe disadvantage that results in goals that result in wins that result in Stanley Cup titles. Teams will not be able to risk the short-handed situations and potential roster depletion that comes with carrying violence-prone players.
The skill and beauty of the game of ice hockey will handle the rest. If ice hockey cannot stand on that alone, if the only way to sustain professional ice hockey is to continue down the bloodsport path that intensified with the arrival of the Broad Street Bullies, then perhaps it does not deserve to stand.
A Sort of Post-Script
I support the Philadelphia Flyers to this day and await the day I see a Stanley Cup parade down Broad Street. They lost to the Oilers the year I was born and I have since watched them come so, so close against Detroit and Chicago. It will happen. I cherish the history that brought us to today even though I do not like the violent aspects of it, including all of the Flyers legends.
As a follow-up to the discussion about violence in ice hockey, I wanted to address the specific role the Flyers history played in that. It felt necessary as a Flyers fan for any reader who might think, “Who is a Philly fan to speak out against violence in the game?”
The Flyers are my team, but I do not like the violence in the heritage. Several moments in the team history have made me shake my head in disappointment, many of them having to do with questionable or egregious hits. I am, after all, a hockey fan first and dislike when violence distracts from the game itself.
As a Flyers fan, it’s also important to note that we are #OskarStrong.
I also highly recommended for any hockey fans not already paying attention to check out the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) for some incredible hockey action, and be sure to tune into the All-Star weekends!
January 24 and 25 in St. Louis for the NHL
The January 24 events include a women’s game featuring amazing talent from the Professional Women’s Hockey Player Association. They are pushing for a sustainable professional league for women after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded (hopefully coming to an arrangement with the NWHL for something!).
February 8 and 9 in Boston for the NWHL