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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Why Can’t Hockey Be America’s Game?

Every time I go to Toronto I find myself drawn to the Hockey Hall of Fame and its marvelous displays of greatness.  Not that I make it to the Great White North all that much but it seems like since I’ve gotten older I’ve made it more than when I was younger.  I’ve been to the HHoF at least three times and to Toronto at least five but every single visit to the museum I’m always struck by the wonder of it all.

I know that Canada invented the game (although some may argue that it’s roots are in the Middle Ages – the game as we know now is Canadian in origin) and is celebrated as a religion country-wide.  In fact before it was replaced in 2013, the Canadian five dollar note featured children playing winter sports, including hockey, and wearing a number 9 sweater to honor  Montreal Canadiens great Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Included with the picture was a quotation from Canadian novelist Roch Carrier’s short story “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.

Yeah I get you Roch, the rink is where I’d be too if I lived in Canada.  Cold, brutal winters where you are forced inside, you might as well find something to do right?  Time for some hockey and after your legs are burnt out from skating turn on the television and watch some Hockey Night in Canada?  I mean come on, we don’t have anything like that here in America.  Sure we have Monday Night Football, but Hockey Night in Canada, there’s no chance.  The tradition and the history, plus Canadians have Don Cherry and his outfits.  No contest.

But here’s the thing.  Most places in America don’t have access to a rink.  In the South you are lucky to find a rink.  It’s getting better but when I was growing up I could only tell you where one was.  Even living in New York, where you think there’d be a bunch – it’s cold!, I have to drive an hour and a half on a good day to find a rink to play hockey.  True, I’ve read Derek Boogaard’s biography where it talks about his father driving him all over.  If my daughter is going to play she’s going to have to go at least three hours in multiple directions to play.  All over the Eastern Seaboard.  I can’t imagine doing that as a kid to play a sport.

But what’s funny about hockey, is that for as much as it costs-and trust me it costs, at some point you start to find this itch.  You can’t get enough ice time.  You can’t get even time on your skates.  You want to feel that stick in your hands every chance you get.  Even getting back into it at my age, I’m proud to say that I skated for an hour without falling-finally!  I’m getting better but I’m still pretty terrible.  Watch me skate backwards if you need a laugh.

However I’m bothered though, for all that hockey means to Canada there will probably not be one Canadian NHL team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Yes the teams are loaded with Canadian players, but I want to see Toronto or Calgary or Ottawa or Edmonton or Winnipeg or Vancouver go deep in the playoffs.  It just doesn’t seem right not to see a Canadian team.  I don’t like it at all.  I realize some of it has to do with the direction of the club, some has to do with the value of the dollar and some has to do with the quality of the team but no matter I don’t like it.  I’ll trade a potential Florida team or two for a Canadian team any day.

I know these teams are all because of the Gretzky effect – the same Gretzky who perfected the so-called Gretzky buttonhook.  A move that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl perfected in a game on March 20, 2016 when he assisted on Bryan Rust’s goal.  The Pens took out the league leading Washington Capitals 6-2 that night behind Kuhnhackl and his spin moving self.  I’m not sure Gretzky could have made a better pass, this was text book.  Maybe Chris Becker taught him that at the Revolution Ice Rink in Pittston at skills night while he was playing for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pens?  It’s a possibility.  You never know where he may have picked that one up.  Then he sold him some Ribcore skates?  Just kidding Chris.

Because of Gretzky’s influence on the league we’ve seen more and more Americans jump into hockey.  I was probably exposed to more hockey because of him and I have to thank him for that.  It is one of those sports that gets in your blood.  No matter what other sport you think you love, until you actually get on the ice and strap on the pads, skates and grab a stick, you don’t know what you are missing.  I can understand why it’s Canada’s sport and you know what?  I don’t think we’ll ever be good enough at it to best them.  We’ll never have the access or the commitment to hockey.  Our focus is on baseball, basketball and most importantly football.  There’s no way we’ll take up hockey as our number one sport.  I think Canada should take hockey, mold it and each year make it better and better.  Each visit to Toronto make the HHoF a place that I never want to leave at the end of the day, a place where those that gave everything they had to the game have a chance to pay tribute to their teammates and those they respected.  Hockey deserves a place where it can be worshipped and I think that place will be and should always be Canada…O Canada.

You Want Me To Eat What!?

Some of you may know this about hockey and the National Hockey League in particular, but the teams and the fans are quite peculiar.  I myself am one of those people if you hadn’t guessed: a multiple time Hockey Hall of Fame visitor, I watch many games during the season , I love the post-season, I play the video games and I root heavily for my teams (even my minor league team, Hi Tux!).

But one of the cool perks about being a hockey fan is that you get to be a part of some really cool traditions that have stood for many years.  There’s the national anthem before the game where people walk out on those cheesy mats and sing while the scoreboard displays an 8 bit American flag.  Or maybe even similar to Slap Shot where you hear some guy in a hair piece banging away at an organ up in the rafters (although these days computers are replacing those).  You could grab a seat down by the ice and watch the zamboni come through in between periods and the have a former Stanley Cup winner give you the evil eye through the glass because you are cheering for the other team. I mean there’s what six inches of plastic glass in between them and me and he’s sneering at me before a face off?  Meanwhile the puck gets dropped, won and fired back around the boards and all you hear is this sizzle as it goes by you.  What the hell?  Seriously?  Some guys don’t want to wear visors?  Aww hell naw.  That’s my face.

Beyond all the nasty guys and busted lips there’s the stuff that happens in certain places when the home team scores or wins.  There’s always the famous hat-trick celebration too you know?  Nothing like throwing your lid on the ice, woo hoo I have to go buy another!

Maybe you’ve seen that giant octopus in Detroit and wonder just what in the hell that means?  Where did that come from?  Ironically it’s 63 years ago, in 1952, the brothers Cusinano, Pete and Jerry brought an octopus because during that time it was two best of 7 series to win to take home the Stanley Cup (8wins-8tentacles).  Wouldn’t you know it they won?  Since then they’ve opened Joe Louis Arena and seen many different occasions where people have bombarded the ice with this aquatic delight.

Because there are some people who can’t escape fighting with a rival about every detail, the Nashville Predators decided that they would start their own fishy marine tradition.  Instead of octopus they toss catfish because you know it’s much more plentiful in Tennessee than octopus.  Whether it’s truly something that I’d want to sneak into an arena under my clothing is a different story. I’m not looking to smell like catfish all night but thanks.

In 1996 the Florida Panthers came into their third year with veteran Scott Melanby as captain making a mark on history by taking out a rat before the start of the first home game with his twig.  He went on to score two goals and the team won 4-3.  Afterward goalie John Vanbiesbrouck said that even though he missed a hat trick he scored a “rat trick.”  From there a tradition was born, seeing as it was also the Chinese year of the rat, it felt like this all was written in the stars.  After every Panthers goal plastic rats went flying all over.  There were rats all over and somehow all this rat business propelled the team I their third year (I know I said it already but it’s the third year!) to the Stanley Cup finals.  The Panthers were denied a larger shot at destiny by the dream killer himself, Patrick Roy, and the Colorado Avalanche who hoisted the Cup for themselves.  So much for the year of the rat, although he did always have weird teeth (but damn was he the best goalie).

Then there’s this gem from the Toronto police in January of 2015:

update: 3 fans threw jerseys @MapleLeafs game @AirCanadaCentre during play. Discretion used after investigations… ^vk