Life, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, racism and other isms, law, history, journalism/media…all through the lens of sport.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Odd hockey culture

It's not from arm's length that I am critical of the culture of hockey. Today, I'm specifically talking about the behaviour of players when one of their teammates is hit and collapses on the ice.
There's Hamhuis, lying there all alone, while his concerned teammates and fellow players do what hockey players do - ignore him and fight about it.

I've been around hockey almost all my life.

I played competitive hockey. I was pretty good, too. I won some individual awards (outstanding defenceman), proudly wore an "A" on my sweater as a member of the championship team in my house league (I probably sound like Al "4 touchdowns in one game" Bundy). I went on to play triple-A hockey in the MTHL (future NHLer Chris Govedaris body-checked me once).

I also earned my level II official's credential, and officiated kids (which was the most fun), men's league, and even summer inline hockey.

So, it's not from arm's length that I am critical of the culture of hockey. Today, I'm specifically talking about the behaviour of players when one of their teammates is boarded and collapses on the ice.

Unfortunately, it happens every so often that a player is hit hard and drops to the ice in a heap. The natural reaction of his teammates is not to dash to his side, check if he's breathing or choking on his tongue - no, the reaction is to attack the guy who hit him. And all the other players rush in. And the refs rush in...but no one checks on the guy who's down.... ???

Recently, Marion Hossa of the Chicago Black Hawks shoved Daniel Hamhuis from behind and he went into the boards hard. I want you to see what I'm seeing, especially around the 0:10 point.

What I see is a guy laying on the ice, writhing in pain, and not a single fellow player - whether on the other team or even his own team - popping by to see if he's going to be okay. Nah, they're all in scrum shoving at each other. It happens all the time, and this most recent incident prompted me to talk about it.

I think it's absurd.

See, they're all in the scrum to protest the hit, to "defend their player" (which is odd, because the hit has already happened, there's nothing left to prevent), and for all that caring about the bad hit, no one is showing any interest in or concern for Hamhuis himself.

Compare with what typically happens in a football game when someone doesn't get up after a hit.

(the hit on Ed Reed is an especially a good clip because firstly, it was a helmet to helmet hit, which is illegal; and secondly, while the play is still going, Hines Ward is signalling for help because he knows Reed is hurt). I could go on. Notice, there's no pushing and shoving and fighting after these plays? Notice how players, on both sides of the ball, pay attention to the man down? How "the game" stops and genuine concern for the downed player is visibly expressed?

And, it's not about adrenaline or testosterone or that "hockey is a physical game", because football is just as hard-hitting (I played football, too. I once scored 2 touchdowns in one game and won most improved player that season).

Now, this isn't a discussion about whether I think fighting should remain a part of the game (for the record, I don't), but along with the entire discussion of fighting, I just think there is a strange preoccupation with violence in hockey that just does not appear to the same degree in any other sport; such that, if a player gets hurt as the result of a hard hit, even a legal one, the first response is not to check on the condition of the player, but to fight about it.

The incident with Todd Bertuzzi is a prime example of this. He went on the ice to provoke a fight with Steve Moore. I'm in no way suggesting that, in hockey parlance, he didn't have it coming - I think his hit on Marcus Naslund was bad, too - legal or not, it was't sportsmanlike in my opinion. And if you'll check out the video, you'll see, once again, that after their captain goes down, everyone rushes to...fight about it, while Naslund must pick himself up all by himself until one of the bench medics rushes to his side). Odd, to me.

Anyway, had Moore turned around and faced Bertuzzi, the inevitable ensuing fight would have been absolutely unambiguous, no mystery to it at all. Such behaviour only happens in sport in one other circumstance - in baseball, if a pitcher hits a batter, it won't be long before his teammate pitcher hits one of the opponents. I hate that, too.

Consider in football if a guy puts a late hit on a quarterback, or slams him to the ground, or hits a player out of bounds. Never does it appear, or is it ever mentioned by the commentators, that a player would go out on some subsequent play and look to hit the offending player as some form of retaliation.

The history of Wayne Gretzky and Marty McSorley is another. Hockey intelligentsia will say Gretzky needed McSorley or else everyone would "take a run" at Gretzky. Why would players look to hurt the guy who made them all rich? In most sports, you want to compete, but you don't want to hurt one of your heroes, one of the guys that fills the stands with ticket-buying fans.

In most sports, come playoff time, stars get to put on a show and their per game averages may go up. And why not? Fans come to see the stars shine. But in hockey, the stars (at least, up until the lockout) fade and the 3rd line grinders become the focal point for shutting down the stars. And the enforcement of the rules (or, rather, the lack thereof) let them do so. How counter-intuitive. Is it any wonder the NHL couldn't find a national TV deal? Who wants to watch no-name thugs rough up the stars?

I could provide more examples from other sports. Again, the odd skirmish is bound to happen at some point or another, but the general culture of hockey seems to be "fight first, talk about it later", and I'm just not a fan of that.
Of course, there will be not a few who think I'm crazy.

While officiating a tyke game one day, the coach got all hot and bothered about some issue or another, and went off yelling and screaming. Before too long, the kids on the bench started crying. Crying! And then the kids on the ice started crying. All for...what? Because "that's hockey". Why we create this kind of environment for our kids, I'll never know.

Or, wait, maybe I do. Maybe because we see it on TV and, even for just a moment, we want to pretend we're on stage, so we act it up, like the pros. Too bad what we emulate is the violence and overly aggressive behaviour. When I was kid playing street hockey, we'd call out "I wanna be LaFleur. I'm Mike Bossy... " I wore #2 my entire playing career because of Ian Turnbull, the Maple Leaf defenceman who scored 5 goals in one game...5 goals on 5 shots - even the Great Gretzky didn't do that. Back then, none of us "wanted to be" an enforcer, a goon, the guy who got paid a ridiculous amount of money to drop the gloves, fight, and fist pump to the crowd on the way to the penalty box.

I guess we just didn't know hockey.


  1. I understand the issue - realistically speaking, the hit was unjustified, and hockey does itself no favours in being taken seriously when they omit to impose the mandatory supplementary discipline set forth in their own rule book.

    However, it is culture to scrum after a dirty hit and assert yourselves. It's more psychological than anything - the only thing that can get hurt w/ a facewash is your feelings. It's as much of a part of the game as linebackers and defensive tackles thumping their chest like a gorilla after making a bit hit. I mean, make no mistake, hockey is a much more thug-like environment (on the ice anyways), where it is more of a vigilante law society.

    It is what it is though, and has been that way for years. Look back to the years of Rocket Richard, there were guys taking full out swings to the head with their sticks. It's not like this is a new thing, and yet people loved it for years.

    Regardless of the unfortunately goonery, and yes it's there, I defy anyone to show me a kid walking around with a Derek Boogaard jersey, or a Daniel Carcillo or George Parros jersey. Not there, because while the kids cheer the fighters, its the Crosbys, the Ovechkins, Malkins and Staals who find their way onto the back of the jerseys.

  2. Yeah, Big Mac, thumping my own chest is one thing, but it's the thumping of someone else that's got me bothered.

    Still, the image of a guy writhing in pain with no one to pay him any mind convinces me that this culture of "asserting one's self as you put it" is odd. When you care about a human being, even a fellow player on the other team, you stop "the game" and you focus on paying the guy some attention and getting him some the gorillas in football do.