It should go without saying that the NHL and the rest of hockey, as a whole, is going through a very tumultuous time, dealing with the physicality of the sport and the connections made to some very saddening events that have happened off the ice. Studies are being done and measures are getting put in place to increase the awareness of causes and effects of the rough and tumble ways of our wonderful game. And conclusions are seemingly being drawn in knee-jerk ways from some of the people that really have no place to be making such a ruckus.
It is no secret that hockey, as a sport, has moulded its own counter-culture over the past century. There is very little about this sport that is similar to the other big sports in North America and going with it, the traditions of how the game is played on the ice is also on to its own. When you have 200-pound men brandishing carbon fibre sticks, wearing protection and skating anywhere up to and beyond 20 mph, things have a different way of sorting themselves out.
This culture, especially in Canada, envelops players at an early age and these days, it is done with a certain level of responsibility, that kids are subject to at a tempered pace. Nevertheless, those passionate about the sport will find a way to surround themselves with the wonderment that is the game, be it at the rink, on the road, on television, on the internet and in conversation with others who have the same passion. Despite this big push over the past 10-to-15 years by increased media coverage, social media and national/regional television broadcasts to put the game into the broad spectrum of society, the game remains somewhat of an enigma, because of its counter-culture.
Player safety is a great concern, which has been taken seriously by leagues and federations around the globe, much to the disbelief of the game’s critics, and the steps that are being put in place are slowly, but surely, changing the game, trying to compromise between keeping the traditions of the old game with adapting to the obvious change in the type of athletes that play the game. That, in itself, draws a fine line between being praised and being criticized on an hourly/daily/weekly/monthly/annual basis.
Thankfully, in the NHL’s case, they have done an amazing job in managing to walk this fine line, mostly due to the new measures that have been put in place by the new Department of Player Safety, headed by one of its former players, Brendan Shanahan. There is no better perspective that should be taken into account than that of a person who has played the game, especially one that has played the game for as many years as he did and has been on both sides of every equation, be it the victim of an illegal play to the perpetrator of the action.
With all of this being said, I don’t think there is enough belief from the general public that there is enough being done to keep players safe, but I also don’t believe that there is enough counter-arguments being made suggesting that the players are as safe as they can be today, without crossing the line away from the tradition of the game.
Frankly, these counter-arguments need to be made by those who are taking part in this game and should not be sluffed off as something that the public doesn’t want to hear. As much as it is probably true, the public doesn’t want to hear that grown men want to engage in such high-speed physicality or in a one-on-one stand-off that comes to blows. I can reason with that at the very least, but if no one is going to make this argument in the public forum, then when are hockey fans going to expect the game to be much less physical with no fighting and limited body contact? This is a real fear to a traditional hockey fan, like myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Players have made it very clear that the movement to limit hits to the head and hitting from behind on unsuspecting players are things that they can get behind, especially for their own safety and peace of mind on the ice. Of course, the personality traits and playing styles of some players that are out on the ice on a regular basis, will not see an absolute end to these kinds of plays, but the players that are committing these offences are getting punished, both on the ice and with supplemental discipline, in an attempt to curb this kind of behaviour.
Without a doubt, this movement has been working. The video that Brendan Shanahan released showcasing instances where players have let up on other players along the boards or changed their approach to govern their point of bodily contact is very promising, especially since it hasn’t taken the physicality out of the game itself. With these changes in place, I think it is important to note that the quality of the hockey has increased somewhat.
On the flipside, with the amount of significant instances of reckless or targeting behaviour lessened, when they do happen these days, it is met with an incredible amount of scrutiny and mob mentality, which I think is scarier than anything else. Now that everyone can measure the devastation, thanks to the transparency of Shanahan’s videos, everyone does take their own measuring stick to the picture and wildly throws facts and figures around like creation/evolution debate. It has certainly engaged more people in the everyday discussion, but it has also started to polarize some fans and members of the game, especially in the Pierre-Marc Bouchard high-sticking suspension case.
And then there is fighting.
Personally, I love hockey fights, in all of their forms, but ironically (in a sense), I’m not a fan of mixed martial arts/cage fighting. I am certainly not on the fence about fighting, I think it should stay in the game. I admire that there are studies that are being done at various levels of the game, trying to make the pugilism in the game a little safer for the combatants, be it leaving their helmets in, having their jerseys tied down and extra penalties for those who go into a bout with a visor on their helmet, but the nature of the match should still be intact.
Most of my support for hockey fights stem from the players on the ice or the bench, as they are ones who are trying to take something out of this fight. A feeling of pride, a feeling of retribution, a turn in mood (especially from going down a goal) cannot be measured on paper or spreadsheets, but it can be felt by the work ethic of the players on the ice, responding to a tilt. By no means is this a tangible argument to the casual fan that would like to see this kind of barbaric action out of the game, but to the hockey culture, it’s as tangible as goals and assists on any given night.
This, to me, also goes for the new chic term of “staged fighting,” where two combatants square off as soon as the puck drops on a faceoff. Where you would see the toughest players on either side of the ice square off in a bout that didn’t necessarily stem from a spontaneous play on the ice, like check to a teammate or a hack and slash (or general nastiness) between the two players. Nevertheless, when the scrap comes to an end and the two benches are standing and tapping their sticks along the boards in appreciation of what the two fighters have done, you cannot tell me that this sort of thing goes unnoticed or unappreciated.
The real unfortunate situation that surrounds fighting and the support that it gets from players is that there isn’t a lot of it that is made public. In TSN’s season preview show, which aired a couple of weeks ago, there was the “all-player” version of the Quiz, a feature that the network has on their Wednesday night national broadcasts in the first intermission, where the host, James Duthie has a number of multiple choice questions that are banded about and debated. On this season preview show, Taylor Hall of the Oilers, Jason Spezza of the Senators and Brian Gionta of the Canadiens were asked a number of questions, which included something along the line of whether or not fighting still has a place in the game. I’m sorry I can’t exactly quote it, because I can’t seem to find the clip online or else I would link to it. Unanimously, the three scoring forwards, not known for their pugilism, agreed that fighting had a place in the game and it shouldn’t go. This is something, albeit it would be preferred to have more explanation as to why it should stay, I would like to see more of throughout the league. The subject of fighting in hockey remains somewhat of a taboo, because it isn’t approached in a manner that is meant to explain why it happens and why it is appreciated.
It all may fall on deaf ears, but like some of the transparency in some of Shanahan’s suspension videos, but I really think it would go a long way to helping every fan out, both hardcore and casual.
As a fan, I would like to see the traditions of the game be kept intact, keep the feeling and the physical play, as it really is the charm of this game. Sure, the beauty of this game is the execution of a wonderful tape-to-tape pass, sending a highly-skilled forward in on a breakaway and letting the magic happen, but the charm is in what makes this game so much different than the rest of the other major sports in North America. I believe that the NHL has done a great job in managing these points, especially this season, but I really think there has to be some taboos and some more support to their every day happenings, from the players, coaches and managers. They may not be things that the public want to hear, but all of these arguments cannot be left to a sounding board like Don Cherry, who as much as I respect and believe in, is becoming a parody of his former self and is being hung out to dry like one.
Someone new has to start standing up for the game or at the very least, shining a light on the fact that there are players who still believe in this game and the traditions that have built it from the ground up.