Thursday, March 22, 2012

NHL Reflections With a Nod to the NRA and Faust

Two days ago, the New York Times featured a panoramic picture that ran almost the entire length at the bottom of the first sports page. In it, we could see six NHL hockey players, three NY Rangers and three NJ Devils, gloves off, sticks on the ice, having at it. Although the game had barely begun, these were not the normal starters of a “normal” game (if there is such a thing as normal in the NHL).

Opening Seconds of NY Ranger/NJ Devils Game, March 19, 2012

As Times reporter Christopher Botta wrote, “When Devils Coach Peter DeBoer submitted his starting lineup, he included two frequent fighters, Cam Janssen and Eric Boulton, along with Ryan Carter, another forward who is not shy about dropping his gloves. Taking the hint, Rangers Coach John Tortorella countered with Stu Bickel, Brandon Prust and Mike Rupp. Tortorella employed Bickel, a defenseman, to take the opening face-off against Carter.” Because defensemen don’t normally take face-offs, we already suspect something’s amiss.

Here is a video of what happened at Monday night’s game between the Rangers and the Devils. You will see Ranger defenseman, Stu Bickel, take the faceoff, then drop his gloves and stick and go after Devils’ center, Ryan Carter; the respective wings then took each other on.

Botta also informed us that “it was the third time in the six-game season series that Rangers and Devils players engaged in fights against each other in the opening seconds.”   Now, die-hard ice hockey fans will see nothing abnormal about this state of affairs. But, then, neither would die-hard supporters of the NRA (nor the NRA itself) find anything abnormal about the “Stand Your Ground” laws that contributed to the killing of Trayvon Martin, an innocent teenager in Florida--this week's major news story.

In both cases, the “world view” of North American NHL fans and of American NRA members is myopic and out of touch with the rest of the world (which includes the majority of our country as well). Normal people do not carry concealed weapons in public. Normal state governments do not pass laws that would allow armed citizens to shoot or threaten to shoot someone who either merely confronts them verbally or, as was almost certainly the case of young Trayvon, who was trying to escape them because they were brandishing a gun.

And normal players of team sports, the purpose of which is to outscore ones opponent by shooting or carrying a ball over a goal line, do not take the field with the intention of fighting.   In fact, we just read today that in our most aggressive of team sports, NFL football, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints was suspended for a year because of a bounty program.  This bounty program provided monetary incentives for a team’s players to hurt and knock certain opposing players out of a game.  One could argue that such informal bounty programs at least demand some creative application of the specific skills for which these athletes practice and are actually trained to perform.  This is not the case with ice hockey “enforcers,” who often may not be skilled enough to play NHL hockey were it not for their “fisticuffs.”

Face it, North American ice hockey operates in a completely different category from all other sports.  And I say North American, because the outright acceptance of fighting in hockey, in which the combatants are afforded the opportunity continue playing all of their future games without much risk of suspension, only occurs in hockey on our continent.  Such behavior in the European hockey leagues would lead to immediate suspensions.  Also, as the European rink is wider and longer, it encourages a more disciplined mode of play in which passing and puck movement is paramount.   In other words, the European game is a much more elegant game and more fun to watch--unless one attends games to watch the fights.

Now, in case that earlier video of the first minutes of Monday’s game didn’t satisfy one’s blood-lusting “love” for hockey, here is a video from 2006 of a fight that seems to go on forever in a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Senators.  This is pure insanity.

Yet, fighting is so much an accepted, maybe even cherished, part of North American ice hockey that Wikipedia has a fascinating and long article on the subject, offering an abridged history of NHL fighting as well as the rules that emerged as a way to control, modulate, and accept it.

One of the many arguments in favor of allowing fighting is that it helps to deter other forms of rough or illegal play, such as elbowing, high-sticking and cross-checking.  Of course, the European league does not allow fighting; nevertheless, it is not beset by any greater amount of rough play or illegal checks.  I would even venture to guess that it has fewer such plays.  This argument in support of fighting is pure malarkey.  Interestingly, specious arguments like this can also be found in the NRA arguments for loosening gun restrictions; how many years have we been subjected to one of its favored mantras: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” What nonsense!

My intention is not to find some meaningful connection between these two modes of insanity--the NHL and the NRA--although it might be possible.  For instance, after the Columbine incident, George Gund, the majority owner of the San Jose Sharks had his team go to Columbine for a gun control rally.  In response to this "insult" to our Second Amendment, one gun advocate blogger wrote, “It's time to BOYCOTT the Sharks including games where the Sharks are visitors.”

My intention, instead, is to admit to a certain self-realization brought about by that picture in Monday's sports page.  I love sports and I have played team sports most of my life, much of it contact sports.  My main sport was lacrosse, but I also played ice hockey for several years--although not at anywhere near the level that I played lacrosse.  As I prefer playing to watching, I now have switched to tennis as my main sport.  Still, I do enjoy watching almost any sport at its greatest competitive moments--the olympics, the four tennis majors, the NBA and NFL playoffs, the World Series.

What I realize is this: the only sport I never watch (even though I played it) is ice hockey.  Correction: I have watched olympic hockey games, because they play by European rules, but I will never bother to turn on even the finals of the Stanley Cup.   I, and I imagine most sports fans, watch to find in these challenging matches those moments of pure, perfect execution.  We look for the perfect play, by which I mean plays executed not only with wonderful athleticism but also fairly and with proper sportsmanship.  We viscerally feel tension in the final minutes of a close game when a perfect offense challenges a perfect defense; one must yield, but how and when?

North American ice hockey, because of its embrace and even its promotion of fighting, is a sport that has sold its soul.   It is the Faust of professional sports. For me, it can’t rise to the same heights of purity as can other sports, because it is tainted by the specter of fighting.  By its very nature, fighting is unsportsmanlike and unprofessional.  It hangs over the game of ice hockey like a dark cloud.  And when we have hockey games like Monday’s between the Rangers and the Devils [how appropriate is that!], we are dragged down to the depths of hell within the first few seconds of the game.  Give me a tennis racket, any day.


  1. Well - I could only assume hocky allows this because the sport doesn't have legs to stand on. - most interest of the casual viewership body comes to watch because of the fight.
    The trend with many sports is this - once popularity rises and the significance of the sport rises - the more it monitors its behavior. We seen this recently with Nascar - and it not wanting the dirty play anymore - we just seen it with football as well as the NBA. If a sport has violence when the main attraction should be skill - then that sport doesn't have much relevence unless violence is part of the actual skill such as MMA. Sorry for any typos - sent from phone :)

  2. ... and the meek shall not get air-time

  3. Hello there.

    I would pose to you a few questions.

    Firstly, what is "normal"? You say normal people do not carry guns in public, but I can assure you that I know rather a large number of people you could meet, enjoy a pleasant exchange with, and never know that they were in fact carrying a firearm. I have worked with and otherwise interacted with such people for many years. Few of them have been bad people, and the vast majority have a great dislike of violence. They were, in a word, "normal" humans, albeit of a different segment of American culture than you or I might hail from.

    Secondly, what about boxing? Having practiced various martial arts, and having put the gloves on a few times myself, I can honestly say that I find boxing to be at times far more elegant than a game of soccer. Or a tennis match.

    I would also point out that NHL hockey is today still less brutal than American football, and certainly much less so than the NFL in the 70s, when teams stocked their lines with hitmen armed with hidden metal plates and other gear with which to mangle and terrify the other team. So I have difficulty with the idea of hockey as Faustian for formalizing and regulating fighting as part of the game.

    All that said, I've enjoyed reading your blog thus far.