Bruins’ thuggery sets template for playoff hockey violence
Last season, Canucks’ GM Mike Gillis built a high scoring up-tempo squad based on the premise that an NHL team could dominate the league and win the Cup by turning the other cheek and punishing their opponent on the powerplay. In the final against Boston, they fell apart, losing their cool, forgetting their mission, and ultimately succumbing to a bigger, meaner and dirtier team.
The Bruins won by punching, hacking and beating the Canucks into submission. Ultimately, they also got better goaltending and timely scoring, but their most clear advantage was rooted in physical attack.
Teams around the NHL saw the Bruins as the model for Cup success. They figured the path to victory was not through offence and artistry but through violence, intimidation and brutal thuggery.
The referees are only going to call so many penalties, and if the other team’s power play proves ineffective as a deterrent, as the Canucks’ did, then “anything to win” is the motto, such a great lesson for society. Such great heroes are these men who use violence and intimidation as a means to achieve such a noble feat. I thought we weren’t supposed to like bullies.
Even the Canucks abandoned their template. It clearly hadn’t worked; there were lessons to learn and adjustments to make. Staying the course and seeing it through to victory was not an option. The Canucks traded skill for grit when they jettisoned prized centre Cody Hodgson to Buffalo for bigger, meaner Zach Kassian. They gave up their identity to try to emulate their foes, to become the bully.
This is classic NHL thinking. There is no higher calling than winning the Cup, so just try your best to duplicate the most recent winner. Unfortunately, this narrow approach disregards the reality that there are in fact endless ways to win Lord Stanley’s holy grail.
The Canucks won 15 games last year, if they had won 16 teams would be copying them. Daniel and Henrik Sedin wouldn’t be called soft or weak, or the ever so witty, “sisters,” they would be lauded as champions. We would have an NHL moving towards more skill and less violence. But it was decided that the Bruins’ approach must be the winning formula. Ethics and esthetics aside, the way to win in today’s NHL is to punch, bully and intimidate your way to the Cup.
As a result, we have been treated to a plethora of on-ice attacks to start the playoffs. A wonderful treat of players and teams trying to send a message of how tough and mean they are. We got Shea Weber smashing Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass after the game was over. We got Matt Carkner jumping a defenseless Brian Boyle and punching him the face as many times as he could before someone intervened. And in retaliation, we got Carl Hagelin’s flying elbow to the head of Daniel Alfredsson, leaving the Senators’ captain concussed and possibly out for the rest of the playoffs. And that was in just the first handful of games. The list of offenders grows daily and there isn’t enough space here to address them all here.
Like many others, I was glued to the Penguins/Flyers game on the weekend. I get that the little caveman (or woman) inside of all of us finds entertainment in what transpired. I get it, the crowd was loud, there were lots of goals and the hatred between the two sides adds a dimension that makes playoff hockey great.
The game was compelling and full of drama, but it would have been compelling without equipment strewn all over the ice and some of the best players in the game throwing fists at each other. It would have been even more compelling without the antics of Aaron Asham and James Neal (amongst others), and their attempts to maim their opponents.
A few short suspensions and a couple small fines were all that resulted from the chaos.
All we are left to conclude is that the NHL doesn’t actually care about bringing us a game based on skill. They want a spectacle of violence – the Roman Coliseum on ice. They want gladiators not poets.
I will surely be accused of being soft and not understanding the true nature of the game by intellectual titans like Don Cherry. The expert on all things hockey violence, said on Coach’s Corner that the reporters are the only ones complaining about the ongoing violence and listening to the them “would be nuts.”
I’ll give Cherry this, violence is in some ways a very logical way to ensure you get as much time with the puck as possible. Whack your opponent with your stick, punch him in the face, fly into him at high speeds while he isn’t looking, or even just push and shove and face-wash after the whistle, all to intimidate, gain a slight advantage, and ensure that yours is the team with the puck.
When violence is an integral part of the game, you of course need enforcers – to protect the skilled players. And now you have legitimized the bare-knuckle boxing on skates that is such a glorious spectacle that we couldn’t possibly do without it. Supporters of fighting in hockey endorse the continued violence as a necessary policing mechanism to keep the game from total anarchy. Too late, though: the anarchy is already here.
The NHL justice system has lost total control of the inmates, who are now gleefully running the asylum like the immature twenty-somethings jacked up on testosterone that they are. Even the greatest player in the world, Sidney Crosby, got into the act on the weekend. Surely a man of his skill and accomplishments need not send a message with his fists, when a goal would aptly do the trick.
When Brian Burke took over as General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs he said, “We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
Let’s for a moment consider what these words mean and what it says about Burke’s view of the attributes necessary to win in the NHL. Pugnacious – inclined to quarrel or fight readily. Truculent – fierce, cruel, savagely brutal, vitriolic, aggressively hostile. Belligerent – a warlike or aggressively hostile nature; an act of carrying on war; warfare.
The problem is these are desirable attributes premised on the belief that hockey is war. You have to have soldiers in the trenches waging battle to ensure the skilled combatants can win the war. But what Cherry and Burke, and others who think the game needs more punching and less skill miss is that hockey is not war, it isn’t even war-like.
War is a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state. Hockey is not war and by evoking it as an analogy or calling players warriors or soldiers, or saying they should be more truculent and belligerent we are enabling an inaccurate and damaging narrative around the sport to persist. Hockey is not by its very nature dependent on violence. I know ‘good-old-time-hockey’ was violent, but that doesn’t mean it should have been or needs to continue that way.
The game should be physical -- I am not saying we should take out hitting or contact. What I am saying is that acts of violence should not be tolerated. The flying elbows to the head, the blindside predatory hits, the cross-checks to the face and punching, the endless punching of an opponent, all need to go. The guy on the other side is an opponent in a game, not a mortal enemy, just a guy in a different colour sweater. The way to remove this kind of violence is not to endorse further violence and player-led on-ice policing. The way to remove violence is with league discipline that clearly shows distaste for what the first week of the NHL Playoffs has brought us.
Enough with the $2,500 fine and the one game suspension. Enough with the slap-on-the-wrist and the special treatment for star players. Enough with ignoring blatant violence if it doesn’t result in injury. Enough, enough, enough! Send a real message. Suspensions should be measured in weeks -- not days. They should last an entire series, or better yet, rest of the playoffs. And please, please get some consistency.
It is fine to say that hockey is a “man’s game,” while I feel the term sexist and unfair to fine women hockey players around the globe, I get the point that the game is intended to be a physical confrontation, a test of ones mettle, an outlet for our genetic predisposition to compete and prove oneself. But that does not make hockey analogous to war and the athletes warriors, violence is not a necessary condition for the game to exist.
The game is as much about skill and strategy as it is about physical confrontation. You can achieve the objectives of the game – scoring more goals than your opponent over 60 minutes – without punching, maiming or disemboweling your opponent.