Unsportsmanlike Conduct in the NHL: What’s the Big Deal?

Heather ParryCorrespondent IApril 19, 2008

Sean Avery’s laughable yet annoyingly affective screening technique against Martin Brodeur on April 13 might have been forgotten after a few hundred angry blog posts and a season’s worth of heckling from the New Jersey Devils fans—after all, we’ve seen worse. 

However, the NHL saw things differently.  

Maybe they’re staunch Brodeur fans, who knows, but on April 14, the rulebook had been changed to include “actions such as waving his arms of stick in front of the goaltender’s face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with an/or distracting the goaltender” within the actions worthy of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. 

So what’s the fuss about that particular infraction?  

Perhaps the bigwigs at NHL HQ are aware that any publicity isn’t necessarily good publicity, and everyone who hates the sport revels in instances like the Avery-Brodeur one, the McSorely-Brashear episode, or even the recent Roy Jr/Sr QMJHL debacle. 

“It’s vicious!” shout the broadcasters. “They’re morons!” scream the fans. “Get the violence out of the sport!” squeal over-zealous hockey moms scared for their first-borns’ pearly white smiles. 

It creates a fuss that the governing body just doesn’t need, and so a slap on the wrist quells the furor, and life can go on as usual. 

That’s only a part of it though. Really, it’s because us hockey fans like to indulge in a little sports snobbery. 

Despite the prevalence of violence in our favorite game, we like to think that the sport is founded on integrity, honor and decency. It’s why we keep traditions going, and why the most revered of players are the ones that everyone can describe as ‘good guys.’

Many a hockey fan has rebuffed the accusations of goonery from outsiders, telling the popular story of the guys who fought in the game drinking together in the bar afterwards, and for the most part, it’s true. 

It goes for the fans as well; we applaud an opposing player when he’s injured, we respect favorite ex-players who’ve defected, and there’s no need for a soccer-style police presence at games even when the fiercest rivals play each other. 

It’s not just attitude either; style counts too. We look at soccer and we think it’s too slow, and we think American football is too stop-start, all the while thanking Lord Stanley that our game has speed, skill, aggression, and tactics while still being massively accessible. 

But there’s one often-overlooked belief that a lot of us take as read: that hockey players are just nicer, more intelligent, and generally more articulate than other sportsmen. 

We don’t talk about Theo Fleury’s substance abuse or Dany Heatley’s ‘vehicular homicide,’ instead preferring to herald the clean-cut Crosby and present him to the world as example of the typical North American hockey player. 

We’re at least a little justified as well. Anyone who’s watched an interview with Wayne Rooney after a Premiership soccer match and tried to piece together a full sentence from his ‘ums,’ ‘ers’ and ‘at the end of the days’ can see that either NHL players have to get a diploma in public speaking before they’re drafted, or they’ve got something up there that Rooney and co. haven’t. 

It’s because of this perceived intelligence that the hockey community doesn’t like it when someone does something stupid; it makes the sport look as if it’s populated by idiots. 

No, it doesn’t specifically say anywhere not to send your son to attack another player, or not to do ignore the game and do an Irish jig in front of the opposing goaltender, but it really shouldn’t have to.  

No one in their right mind would do that stuff. And we like our players to be in their right minds. 

Unsportsmanlike conduct undermines the intelligence, decency, and talent that we like to believe our hockey players have.  

So guys, butt-end, trip, and delay the game to your heart’s content, but for God’s sake don’t be rude about it.