The Brutality Of Hockey and The Acceptance Of Fighting

Since purchasing the NHL Center Ice package from my cable overlords, I’ve had the pleasure of watching as many Maple Leafs games as I can handle.  There’s never enough trust me!  I’ve also seen Jayson Megna play a fantastic offensive game in Tampa – I think he needs to sign with a Florida team because he’d be a 20-goal scorer.  I’ve also noticed that for as much as I’d like to believe, there is not a good game on every night.  Sometimes there are relatively few on and they are rather random and strange.

Take for example December 14th’s matchup pitting the San Jose Sharks taking the ice against the Senators in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.  Now normally, I would not pay this matchup any mind or even pay to watch it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hockey game and I’m down for hockey, but I don’t have a dog in the fight.  However, with time on my hands and the Pittsburgh – Boston game on commercial I took up the challenge.

Somehow I got taken in and didn’t go back to the Pens but that’s not the story.  I watched a guy take his stick and cross check another man to the back of the head.  Senators forward Mike Hoffman skated up behind Logan Couture and cross checked him to the back of his head, dropping the Sharks forward to the ice.  Couture unstrapped his helmet, lay on the ice and then was helped up gingerly by a trainer to the locker room.  Hoffman’s hit was deemed to be retaliation for a high stick on Sens’ all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson by Marc-Edouard Vlasic that was not called/seen by the officials.  Karlsson wasn’t injured on the play and had no visible marks from Vlasic’s actions if they were intentional or not.

Now, I’ve seen brutality in hockey.  I grew up in the time of Washington Capitals’ Dale Hunter checking the New York Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon after scoring a goal.  Something I was completely unprepared for and I know Turgeon wasn’t either.  I remember the battles between Detroit and Colorado that turned into a bloody conflict with names like Draper, Lemieux, McCarthy and Maltby.  These were games where every hit seemed to push the game closer and closer to a full-out brawl.  I can remember seeing Kris Draper get checked into the boards by Claude Lemieux breaking bones in Draper’s face.  Or the blood left on the ice when McCarthy took revenge on Lemieux the next year – even after the Zamboni went through the stains were visible.

Maybe I’m getting older and starting to misunderstand things.  I understand when guys take up with the player that caused the injury – the Sens going after Vlasic or the Red Wings going after Lemieux.  I’m not even condoning their action but I understand. However, when everyone that is on the ice becomes open game to cross checks or slashes or high sticks that can cause permanent injuries then the league has to reel in the players.  The league has been trying to curb fighting for some time now but the problem with that is that the guys who fight are there for a reason.

On the same night when Chris Neil was honored for his 1,000 NHL game, Hoffman’s actions proved that men like Neil are necessary for this game to continue.  Neil, who has never scored more than 33 points in a season, has stood up for his teammates and led by doing what others won’t.   Hockey is a rough sport, I understand that and I think everyone who steps on the ice gets that as well – you don’t put on all that gear for nothing.

However, if you are a guy who can score there are going to be people who are going to go after you to put you off your game.  As long as checking is legal, someone is going to try to push that limit.  When they go too far and knock the leading scorer out of the game, what is the league going to do about it?  Suspend the other guy?  What does that harm the other team at that point?  That’s why teams have “enforcers.”  A team says “hey you want to push my guy I’m going to push your guy.”

Guys like Neil, Bob Probert, Tie Domi and Tiger Williams are remembered for their ability to fight but that doesn’t account for what they did for their teammates.  The name in the lineup shows that their teams weren’t going to allow opponents to push around the stars. When Hoffman hit Couture no one was there to go after him, San Jose had no Chris Neil. Hoffman wasn’t afraid of being knocked down by a guy like that so he could freely go after one of the opposition’s best players.

However, for the tough guys there is a tremendous toll this takes on their body and their mentality.  It isn’t easy for them to gear up every night to take on the other big guy in the opposition’s lineup or even to know that they are the target of the next up-and-coming rookie who wants to make a name for himself.  Derek Boogaard struggled with his role as a strongman during his time in the NHL with stints in Minnesota and New York.  Boogaard masked his physical and emotional pain with the pills he was given to sleep and pills he bought from dealers.  Boogaard would eventually succumb to his demons but not before leaving a lasting impression on those around him and leaving me to question what guys like him go through.

What is it about a hockey fight that people enjoy?  The brutality?  Going back to the root of human violence?  We preach to our children not to take out their differences through fisticuffs but it’s okay in hockey?  I struggle with the balance in hockey because I’m not a violent person.  Just like anyone else I enjoy watching a great hit or perk up when I see two guys drop the gloves.  However, after seeing Mike Hoffman drop Logan Couture I wonder how someone can do that to another human.  What goes through your mind?  Do you think “I’m just going to hit him in the back of the head?”  Maybe I’ve just never been put in that situation.

I know I’ll never play in the NHL and understand the pressures they go through but I can’t see myself ever hitting another human in the back of the head with a stick.  It’s disturbing.  I’m not disturbed by a lot and I am prepared for violence in hockey but I’m not prepared for someone trying to kill another human being.  If Hoffman hit Couture hard enough in the head could he have caused brain damage?  Could it have been deadly?  Possibly.  It’s bothersome to think that was the true intention of Hoffman.  I’d like to think these guys respect each other, but I’m not so sure anymore.  I can’t say I appreciate you if I chop you in the back of the head.  It’s a troublesome conundrum and I’m not sure which way to go, all I know is that I’m not in the NHL.  If I was I would hope there would be a Chris Neil there to watch my back, if the NHL gets rid of guys like him, it’s going to get worse.

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