Has NHL hockey now crossed over that invisible line drawn on the ground? You know, that line which used to divide “sport” from “quasi-legal extreme violence upon another human being.”
At one point in time, it used to be that a body-check in hockey was about separating the player from the puck. Yes, this means that the intent was to hit a player who was moving with the puck. Not to hit a player if the puck might be somewhere in the vicinity of the player. Not to slam the player from behind into the boards while the puck is in his feet. Not to throw an elbow into the head of a player who scored on your goalie earlier in the game to “teach him a lesson.”
It is funny to me, how the game has slowly evolved this way. As a little boy, I grew up with an intense love of hockey that I still hold to this very day. I grew up in Toronto, looking up to players like Darryl Sittler or Rick Vaive, but the most influential was Borje Salming. While I cannot presume to remember every single hit thrown in the hockey games of those days, I always played on defence in my years of hockey as a kid, starting when I was just five years old.
I should mention right now that while I am sure that video footage can be found of my hockey heroes from those days handing out the sort of violence I am questioning in this article, my little boy memories of those players do not have any of that violence embedded anywhere.
When body contact was introduced, my coaches and instructors made it clear. The purpose of hitting was to separate player from puck. I certainly remember that being nothing other than obvious—after all, it was a competitive game, and you never wanted to injure anyone.
I also remember playing in a tournament later that same year, where I was getting a puck that had been dumped into our zone. I could hear someone skating hard behind me, and so I pushed the puck a bit up the boards and skated along behind it quickly to move up out of the zone. I then heard a huge crash behind me, and shortly afterwards the play was stopped. The kid on the other team had skated so hard trying to hit me from behind that he actually stunned himself crashing into the boards.
I was shocked and disturbed. For the record, so was just about everyone else. Despite being a tournament game, the other team's coach sent him off for the rest of the game even though there was no penalty called. The kid, with his angry-looking father behind him, came and found me after the game to apologize. Despite not being touched, I remember people asking me if I was O.K.
How did all of this change?
Was it the Big Bad Bruins or the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970’s? Was it Don Cherry’s Rock ‘em Sock ‘em hockey—showing streaming clips of big hits and collisions which seem to get bigger, faster and more violent each edition, in an attempt to out-shock the previous episode?
Was it the all-sports all-the-time TV stations which needed an extra 10 minutes of hockey footage to complete their news hour? The highlights of a hockey game went from beyond showing the odd goal and recapping all the hockey scores in a minute or two during the evening news on your local television station, to showing every goal, every hit, postgame reactions, trash-talking and all the like.
Our game started going along the path from being a sport with great entertainment, to being entertainment constricted within the confines of sports rules. Gary Bettman might not be Vince McMahon, but if there were enough dollars at the end of the tunnel, perhaps Gary might fancy himself in those shoes eventually.
A hit last night by Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens seemed to really highlight this for me.
I know, I know. There have been many other more blatant examples. I’m sure that Matt Cooke has 25-50 hits that were far dirtier than Chara’s hit over the past couple seasons. The NHL has had to look at introducing rules to protect its stars after players like David Booth and Marc Savard found themselves on the hurting end of some truly nasty hits.
However, this still did not stop the NHL from losing its most marketable player in Sidney Crosby the very same year these rules were introduced. It only makes it worse when you look at the kind of year Crosby was having, on pace for about 132 points during the regular season.
How significant is that stat?
The last time someone scored 132 points or more in the NHL was Mario Lemieux’s fantastic 161 points in 70 games during the 1995-1996 season. It is an amazing stat, one of the all-time legends of the game in the prime of his career a decade and a half earlier. With the NHL starved for an American audience and desperate to show the world that its game is about the skill, not the violence—that’s crappy timing and bad luck for the NHL, I guess most people would say.
I would say that sometimes you live in the world you create for yourself. And if good luck is the result of hard work and having the right opportunity to display it, then bad luck is likely the result of slacking and having the right opportunity to display it.
Now, this might sound a little unfair if not hypocritical. I cheer when a player from my team throws a big hit, and I jeer when a player from an opposing team does the same to my team.
But either which way I watch and am presumably entertained.
I, like most people who will be reading this article, do not turn off the television and go read a book or something. In fact, I spent some time this morning watching, and re-watching the hit that Chara gave to Pacioretty. Trying to understand the Boston fans and the Montreal fans, whose views are so widely divergent on the same play.
I see the Montreal fans screaming murder, and the Boston fans responding with incredulous looks and wondering why there was even a game misconduct given on the ice. Both of them are arguing Chara’s intent. And both of them are wrong to do so.
For what it is worth, it seems clear to me that Chara knew what he was doing, and wanted to push Pacioretty into the glass partition—perhaps, or perhaps not, to blatantly injure—but absolutely to use that physical object to stop a faster player from skating past and getting position.
But nobody is questioning the nature of the play itself. Nobody is arguing that Chara should never have considered hitting another player to take away the advantage of ice position. Oh sure, there was an interference penalty called. And nobody, not even most Bruins’ fans, are arguing that it should have been called otherwise. But, that issue seemed to die right there, and I am not convinced that it should.
When did we teach defensemen that if you cannot get your defensive position, it is okay to punish the player who has beaten you fairly. It is not about trying your best any more. It seems to be about making certain that other people are going to be afraid to try their best against you. Some people will argue that I am nit-picking over nothing, but it seems to me that once this distinction is made, you start losing the “sport” and start replacing it with the “entertainment.”
I will also repeat myself and remind you that I continue to watch these games, and I have no intention of stopping that. I can think of several different ways that the NHL could stop incidents like these: remove them out of the game. I think the game would be just as exciting to the real sports fans, but I think that the NHL needs only to look at the massive growth of mixed martial arts to remind themselves that violence sells.
And for them, that is what it is all about anyways, right?
For as long as everyone seems to be making money out of it, I do not think that any of this will change. Not for the health and well-being of the players, not for the purist hockey fans, not for anyone.