Sports  I brawl, therefore I am

Hockey's bloody identity crisis

In most matters a staunch pacifist, my mother is anything but on the subject of hockey. “There used to be real fights,” she would tell me when I was younger. “When I went to these games in the eighties, the entire box would empty. You could see blood on the ice.” We haven’t been back to the rink in a while, but now might be the time to return and satisfy my mother’s bloodlust. According to STATS – a U.S. based sports statistics company – there have been 58 fights in the first 87 games played during this shortened National Hockey League (NHL) season, up from 39 for the same number of games last season. The lockout may be over, but it would seem that there’s a bit of unresolved tension in the locker rooms.

At this juncture in human history, public opinion has oriented itself against most types of violence. Duels and fisticuffs for the lady’s honour have fallen out of fashion, the spanking of children is severely frowned upon, and aggression is often of the passive sort – the province of Twitter beefs. The world of sports is something of an island, the last place where it’s socially acceptable to physically express aggression, which is often encouraged. Concerns such as physical safety can fall by the wayside. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of concussions in hockey, especially since the reports that the recent deaths of NHL enforcers – players kept around for their skill as fighters rather than scorers – such as Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak (all three died during the summer of 2011) could have been caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is caused, unsurprisingly, by repeated blunt impacts to the head. While there’s been similar controversy regarding football (the attitudes of the college and professional football establishments toward their players have been compared to those of owners toward their dogs in dogfighting rings), that’s a bit of a different conversation. Impact is a main feature of football, an integral part of the game. In hockey, many head injuries are the result of spontaneous confrontation – not built into the game like hitting in football is, and therefore not regulated.

The lockout might have sparked a spike in player-on-player altercations, but the spectre of violence is hardly new to the NHL. It’s built into the game’s DNA, into the identity of fans and players. A bit of blood and chaos is seen as a good thing. A star player is hit, and retribution becomes a necessity for the entire team. Defenders of fights believe that fighting is a way to self-police the game; the threat of a fight prevents dirty hits on star players. And many believe that fighting energizes a team and unites the players, who know that their teammates will step up for them. Montreal and Vancouver fans express both the joy of victory and the sorrow of defeat with riots and flaming cars. Detroit Red Wings fans have been known to toss octopus corpses onto the ice during playoff games. There’s a feeling of solidarity that comes with this willing vulgarity. It’s become a large part of what outsiders see when they look at hockey, and hockey seems perversely proud of this. Even the more casual fans, such as my mother.

Perhaps as a consequence of this attitude, the NHL doesn’t seem terribly concerned with officially regulating fights. “The league position from [its hockey operations department] seems to be that it’s regulating itself and policing itself,” said Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations, to the Globe and Mail. “I don’t think there will be any changes and it has to come from the players to push that agenda. From a management and hockey operations position we don’t want to see a change at this point.”

Maybe a bit scarier is the populist, give-the-people-what-they-want stance on this issue. According to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, “fans tell us they like the level of physicality in our game.” It’s not as big an issue for everyone, he says. “People need to take a deep breath and not overreact.” Despite a professed concern for player safety, hockey won’t take an anti-fight stance until they absolutely have to – liability-wise – and that day seems to be a long way off.