Bruins’ thuggery sets template for playoff hockey violence

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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.

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