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This is another topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I deeply love hockey, and yet am dismayed by the amount of violence associated with the sport, and the argument that it is an accepted (and often encouraged) component of this great game. This topic has been often on my mind, but has been slowly gaining greater prominence. Some of the elements that have shaped these thoughts is the sidelining of many players including Sidney Crosby due to repeat concussions, a book I recently read on the subject by Adam Proteau (@Proteautype) of the Hockey News titled “Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing the Sport”, and as the hockey movie “Goon” was released in theatres last weekend. I’ll touch on each of these elements in detail below, but I want to start by describing my introduction to hockey.

I was introduced to hockey at a young age and have always enjoyed it. Growing up in a small town, there were few things to do even in the middle of summer, and the town seemed to shrink even further as each long winter set in. I tobogganed, snowmobiled with my dad and made snow forts. But what I loved most was hockey, and seemed perpetually drawn back to it. Roch Carrier captured this Canadian childhood so perfectly in his famous story “Le Chandail de Hockey”, or, “The Hockey Sweater”:

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating-rink – but our real life was on the skating-rink. Real battles were won on the skating-rink. Real strength appeared on the skating-rink. The real leaders showed themselves on the skating-rink.

There were few places to spend time in town and few things to do, and it seemed that we were often either watching or playing hockey. Every quiet roadway and every spare parking lot and driveway could be in an instant transformed into the next road hockey game. And when we weren’t playing, we were likely found at the local arena to watch the Wiarton Wolves Junior C team play. And this is where I got my first taste and my lifelong distaste for hockey violence.

We were proud growing up that our small town had their own team (no longer, they collectively put up their skates in 2003). After school or on weekends we were likely to be found huddled on the concrete bleachers of the arena to watch our team, and it is there that I watched the first (though sparse) flashes of speed and skill that has since drawn me to watch first the OHL and eventually the NHL. There were moments of brilliance on that ice, but as it was Junior C it was very scrappy hockey, and often very violent. The last minutes of the game were especially fierce, especially if one of the teams were losing badly – the game itself would basically dissolve into all-out brawls between the opposing sides.

Many of my friends cheered these fights which often drew blood, but I always disliked it. Between this characteristic and my small size (I was usually one of the smallest of my class) I became known by many names stemming from “wimp”. I struggled with this, because I never believed my love of the game was diminished by my lack of willingness to watch two men bludgeon each other on the ice.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand the passion and fury that can come very suddenly in any game. In our games we often had to break up fights that would erupt when school-yard rivals found themselves facing off against each other in the grocery store parking lot. I’m ashamed to admit that I got in a few fights myself when I lost control, once after a personal tormentor struck me in the face with his stick – which added the label hypocrite to the list of names. But some saw it as me “coming to grips” with the fact that fighting and hockey just go together. It’s an aggressive sport full of personal grudges, and fighting is a legitimate outlet, they’d say, although after the moment was over I regretted my actions.

This leads me to Adam Protreau’s book. He talks about the culture of professional hockey, and the personal animosity as well as the manufactured rage that the NHL produces, including the acknowledged part the “enforcer” plays (which is the focus of the movie Goon, more on that after). His argument is that the NHL, like any sports marketing machine, attempts to sell to all possible customers, including those that come for violence. I can’t get into all of the points covered by the book, but will attempt to highlight a few of them here. He persuasively argues that:

  • The world of hockey is in a sad state. It has a long legacy of damage done – and it is only getting worse, for a variety of reasons, from the overall player culture to the improvements being made to protective equipment which is increasingly used not for defense but offense
  • Some of the best hockey in the world is also the cleanest (more on that below)
  • Despite the agreed-upon NHL rulebook, there is an unwritten code that is also adhered to (I would compare it to Barney Stinson’s “Bro Code”). It is a code of ethics, but it also makes players above the “law”. This assumption comes with the expectation enforcers will step in to “police”.
  • We are only now learning the full medical cost brain damage is having on our athletes. As medical advances are made and players are being subjected to further scrutiny for damage, we are coming closer to understanding the true cost of every “head shot” that occurs.
  • Professionals from career hockey players (including both players that have been sidelined by head injury and ex-enforcers) and referees to medical experts are coming forward to speak out against what’s happening in the NHL and demand meaningful changes.

The overall message I received was there is obviously a problem, but the NHL is reluctant to make real changes, partially in fear that it may alienate some of its customers. This leads to the question of showing leadership. This article published yesterday seems to point to the fact that without proper leadership from the NHL, junior hockey leagues are considering going forward with their own rule changes. Specifically, it seems they may fall into step with European leagues and eject fighting players from the game immediately, sending a much stronger signal that fighting doesn’t have a place in the game. From the article: “Branch, who’s also OHL commissioner, said the sport doesn’t need violence to sell.” He says:

I believe that there is more and more recognition that our game does not need fighting to survive, to be part of the entertainment package, you might say, because of the concerns of injuries and other concerns that could very well be a byproduct of fighting.

Does hockey need violence to survive? I don’t think so. I agree with Adam Proteau’s assessment that this type of violence was only easily accessible through hockey in past eras, but there are now ever-increasing choices for violent sports on TV from many forms of boxing to UFC . People watch something because of the unique value it possesses. I believe the NHL should sell their true product – the best hockey in the world. I’m not saying that violence in hockey will or should ever be completely banned, but it should hold much stiffer penalties that always stick. It’s still early in Brendan Shanahan’s new role as NHL director of player safety, but he has sent signals that is the direction he aims to take. I hope it happens.

Another point that captured my attention was his comparison of the argument “fighting and hockey just go together” vs. the best hockey games that have ever happened. World championships, Olympic gold metal games – they are all remarkably devoid of fighting. This is because no one wants to be the player that cost their team the ultimate prize by drawing a penalty and putting their team at the disadvantage, and because there isn’t a place on these stellar teams for goons. In these games, pure speed, skill and grace win out on the ice, and we see the sport in its ultimate form. To me, this is actual hockey, and something the league should aspire to. Will it? Hard to say, especially when many that watch still come to the game hoping for violence.

I won’t comment too much on the movie Goon as I have yet to see it, but understand it is in the same spirit as 1977’s Slap Shot. I’ve read several commentaries and criticisms of the film, with comments over a great range, from those that believe the movie was a just a good movie to see with the guys and turn your brain off, to surprisingly thoughtful and insightful into the world of violence in hockey, to an unapologetic celebration of bone-crunching violence (it currently sits at an approval rating of 71% on Rotten Tomatoes). I’m curious about the timing of this film what with the sidelining of its current brightest star and motions by the NHL to change the way the game is played, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see it myself. If nothing else, the creation of this movie proves that the apparent connection between hockey and violence isn’t likely to break anytime soon – in my opinion, to the detriment of the game.