Hockey is among the most graceful of sports, and in some respects it’s among the most decent. Not much trash-talking in the NHL, not much badmouthing of officials. Never a faking of an injury.
Not much criminality, though you do have an occasional cocaine/molly arrest (most recently, Jarret Stoll, LA Kings). Chicago’s Patrick Kane was indicted as a 20-year-old for assaulting a woman, but now he’s 26, reformed as an unassuming and cherubic-looking superstar. For the most part the hockey culture is a peaceful one.
But every now and then the sport erupts in a volcanic burst of extraneous violence, and it seems to come from nowhere. It happens on the ice (usually), and it makes no sense, even to the most avid hockey fans. It happened last Wednesday, in the first game of a Stanley Cup playoff round with the Ottawa Senators at les Montreal Canadiens.
In the second period of the opener, Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban slashed Ottawa’s Mark Stone so savagely that his right wrist was fractured (Video here). Subban swung with the force of a man chopping down a tree with an axe.
His blade went nowhere near a hockey puck. He was swinging, waist-high, to harm Stone, who kept playing — such is the code of hockey toughness.
What’s odd about this incident is that the perpetrator is not your classic hockey goon who rarely scores while amassing 200 penalty minutes as a designated “enforcer.” Subban is quite a talented athlete; he scored 15 goals, 60 points in the regular season. He had 74 penalty minutes, a low total for a defenseman.
But for whatever reasons (and none have been disclosed), he was gunning for Stone, 22-year-old rookie. According to Senators general manager Bryan Murray, Stone “has been one of the top five players in the league for the last two months.”
Subban appeared to be trying to slash Stone’s ankles during a couple of face-offs prior to the controversial attack in the slot. Perhaps it was all part of rookie initiation, which in the NHL can include some bizarre, even perverse, hazing practices. Welcome to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, kid.
If there was any strategy to Subban’s swipe, other than to take out the opponents’ top scorer, it was to intimidate, make ’em all wary that at any second their hands or legs could be in jeopardy of breakage.
As a tactic to win that particular game, the flagrant slashing was a low-probability move. Subban was ejected after being assessed a 5-minute major penalty. The underdog Senators responded with two power-play goals, though they still lost 4-3.
Subban’s hideous foul almost cost his team a victory that would have given away the home-ice edge. That’s what troubled him, more than the injury he caused. After the game, he expressed no remorse, other than to say he should “be more disciplined.”
Ottawa’s coach, Dave Cameron, demanded more punishment: “I think it’s an easy solution. You either suspend him, or one of their best players gets slashed. . . ”
Eye for an eye, wrist for a wrist. This was, of course, a terroristic threat, Cameron trying to make Canadiens as nervous about being whacked as his own players were. By league rules Cameron could have been fined $25,000.
But no action was taken against the coach. The league office cited “an emotional couple of days” that impaired his judgment. His assistant coach, Mark Reeds, had died the day before, from cancer of the esophagus.
So we have a player being underpunished for an egregious assault, and we have a coach being excused because he was grieving. The NHL calls it a wash, and we move on.
But do we?
The message here is, at best, mixed. It’s not a lesson that should be taught.
Their best player wounded, the Senators lost the first three games of their best of seven, with the margin of each game being one goal. Two games went to overtime. Stone did not score a goal, though he did assist on three. His fractured wrist was strong enough to pass the puck but maybe not to shoot it. So Subban’s slashing tactic – whatever its intent – worked to the benefit of his team.
To be fair, with both sides at full strength Montreal is better, and in this series it may even be working harder in the corners. But the point is that Subban was not brought to justice for a serious offense. It was just the latest example of an endless cycle of barbarity that puts this otherwise appealing sport on the wrong side of morality and history. Not to mention psychology. Well, let’s mention it later.
North American hockey is the only team sport that promotes fighting. The excuse by hockey’s Old Guard is that the fighting is “a safety valve” that allows players “to blow off steam” so they don’t resort to swinging their sticks.
But of course, we see players swinging sticks. In 1975, when I was covering the NHL beat for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I met a player for Minnesota, Henry Boucha, who lost an eye – and a career — to the stick of Boston’s Dave Forbes, who was quite a nice fellow most of the time. He had to stand trial for aggravated assault. He got off with a hung jury.
Lesson not learned.
When the commissioner, in this case Gary Bettman, who grew up in the much more restraining NBA, refuses to crack down on thuggery, the vigilante spirit reigns. As Cameron suggested. The Old Guard has long contended that this is a major part of hockey’s appeal.
I admit, when a hockey game turns into a boxing match, I do not avert my eyes. Perhaps it satisfies a suppressed bloodlust. Isn’t it more entertaining than baseball players squaring off, jutting their jaws without ever punching one?
But hey, while fisticuffs – and worse — may not offend current hockey fans, they’re obviously not attracting swarms of new ones.
By promoting hooliganism, the NHL sells its game short. The implication is that its grace, speed and legal collisions are not enough, that it also must be Martial Arts on Ice for the audience to stay tuned.
I think it’s much the opposite. American college hockey and European hockey leagues do not permit fighting, and people love the game anyway. And it doesn’t have more high-sticking. Sports psychologists say fighting doesn’t relieve stress, it exacerbates it. Rulebooks in all other sports are written to limit the violence to what’s essential to their game.
Football is enmeshed in this dilemma. You can’t remove the blocking and tackling, so the injury risk is inherently high. But you don’t allow fighting or kicking people or trying to crush their bones. The rules are constantly adjusted to enhance safety. Why? Because polls are showing parents – even NFL players — steering their sons away from playing football, out of health concerns.
Hockey is much less hazardous than football while providing many more minutes of high-speed movement. Hockey players lose teeth but – the wonderful Eddie Kea being a tragic exception – rarely their brains. Stanley Cup action shows the sport at its best: there’s little fighting and slashing, with the games so critical. Nobody wants to lose because of an ill-conceived penalty.
Hockey has less thumping than football, but it has a lot. In the Ottawa-Montreal series opener under review here, each team delivered more than 40 hits. The boards and Plexiglas were rattling.
The National Hockey League is perpetually seeking the popularity it thinks it deserves. Attendance is fine for most of its teams, but it does not have much television presence. It has a deeply passionate but narrow fan base. It used to be said hockey couldn’t translate to TV because the puck’s too difficult to see. That’s no longer such a problem, with high-definition and enhanced camera coverage.
The Old Guard has long blamed hockey’s stunted growth on mainstream media, which accords the sport little coverage except for the violence issues. They want to have it both ways: let the brutality continue but let’s not talk and write about it.
They do have a point, that hockey is more entertaining – and safer — than most American sports journalists realize. But those who run hockey, the commissioner and owners, can control the narrative if they want.
The NFL, so clumsily directed by Roger Goodell, has given Bettman an opening. The NHL offers speed, body-checking, booming audio and remarkable athleticism. Now, if only it could figure out a way to be more civil.