Monday, February 12, 2007

Blindness/Hatred/Rivalry

Wherein the author says many things, most of which will probably be regretted in the morning

I was at the game, on Saturday, when Ray Emery smacked Maxim Lapierre across the face with his stick. Like most penalties that happen in a live hockey game, I didn’t really see it as it happened. I saw that something happened, but it moved fast and I was simply too far away, and viewing the play from a somewhat disadvantageous angle. Unlike most penalties, however, the Bell Center helpfully replayed the footage of this one on the scoreboard, immediately after the fact. So that we could all see what had happened. So that we would know.

I have to say, I got over it pretty fast at the time, because of the excitement of the game, and because, for good or ill, I’ve been having serious second thoughts about Lapierre recently. I liked him a lot the first time he was called up, back in December, when he was scoring goals and didn’t seem like such a bad kid, on the whole. Even after the Crosby incident, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, since it didn’t look that bad to me on the replay, and apparently he and Crosby had something of a history in Junior. Every hockey player does thuggish things occasionally, I told myself. But I’m getting suspicious of Lapierre these days. Not so much because I’m convinced by the tape of the incidents of his supposed iniquity, but because he seems to be taking an unwholesome glee in his rapidly-developing notoriety. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I’m willing to entertain criticism of him. I want my Habs to have a decent reputation, and I’d be happier if they remained without one of those ‘pest’ players who routinely do indefensible things.

Indefensible, that is, except for when they play for one's own team, for everyone seems to love their own dirty players. This is one of the aspects of hockey in general, and hockey fandom in particular, that routinely gives me screaming fits. Hockey fans, from what I can tell, have no ethical standards whatsoever when it comes to their team winning. Anything, no matter now malicious or dangerous, can be and is rationalized if it benefited one’s own team, and most of the time even if it didn’t.

Emery deliberately hit someone in the face with his stick. This was not an accidental high-sticking, or even a heat-of-the-middle-of-the-play high-sticking. This was an after-the-fact act of conscious retaliation. Hockey fans should not have to be reminded of this equation: sticks + faces + force = very, very severe injuries. And yes, I am thinking of the fact that Koivu nearly lost an eye last season and still has a blind spot. And yes, I am thinking of the unfortunate bachche who had seizures on the ice because Perezhogin decided to take a stick to his head. This is the kind of violence that costs people their careers, and sometimes more. We’re not talking about the risk of a bloody nose or missing teeth here, we’re talking the risk of blindness and brain damage.

It’s very, very obvious that I have not made my peace with violence in hockey the way most fans have, and I’m sorry about that, I’m working on it. But I have to believe, for my sanity, for my faith in humankind, that somewhere there is a line that just should not be crossed, not for any reason, and should not be rationalized, excused, or justified if it is. There has to be something that is just never, ever, okay.

Looking around the websites of my ‘rival’ teams the past two days, there’s a lot of people defending Emery and arguing that Lapierre deserved it, or even worse. How do they hate us this deeply, this sincerely? How can you say in the same breath that you know that Emery meant to injure Lapierre, and even that he’s a ‘sociopath’ who you would expect to do such things, and then turn around and say, but it’s okay, because he’s ‘our’ sociopath, and anyway, Lapierre is a Hab, so it’s all good? And then go on to say that Emery got worse than he deserved, with a three game suspension, because the League is racist, or biased against him? As far as I can tell, Emery got lucky that it was only three games, because Lapierre wasn’t hurt. But for this kind of thing, there can’t be a no-harm, no-foul policy, you can’t say its fine because this time there were no real consequences, because the next time somebody does the exact same thing, there probably will be.

I have no interest in defending Lapierre, or arguing that he’s a sweet guy who’s been misjudged, because it shouldn’t matter in this case who he is. I don’t care if he’s The Venerable Sidney or The Accursed Tucker, nobody should ever, ever get hit like that. It is not the moral or physical equivalent of an accident, or even a deliberate thwack to the body. If Emery wanted to provoke a retaliatory fight, fine, let him shove the kid, and if Lapierre ran off, there are still a thousand types of violence to choose from in hockey, at least half of which are more proportional to the offense than Emery’s choice. I know, in the raw moments of a game all kinds of violence seem appealing, it may seem like righteous vengeance, it may seem like the right thing to do, but some things just can’t be allowed. There’s got to be a point where the bloodlust and the rivalry-hatred end, because we know that if we go further, we enter the no-man’s-land of infinite escalation, and eventually there won’t be anyone left standing on either side.

I know there are Sens fans and Leafs fans who read this site from time to time, and, although I now understand more clearly the depth of your loathing for ahbabi, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this issue. Not the specific dynamics of the situation, per se, as there’s lots of discussion of that to be read all over the place, but the general question. Is there, for you, a beyond-the-pale, some action so wrong that you would not defend a member of your team who did it? If the line isn’t swinging a stick to the face, where is it? Or is the rivalry really so deep that you, even after the end of the game, even in your calmest moments, truly want to see the men who play for the Canadiens literally crippled? And how did you come to feel that way?

I ask because I don’t feel that. I mean, I feel it in the games, I get a little crazy over certain varieties of fighting (see previous post), and it’s well known that I have an ongoing love-affair with Komisarek’s checking style. I’ve seen and excused my share of dubious actions on the parts of the Habs. In the end, though, I hate seeing hockey players- in any color uniform- broken, and when I see such breaking or the kind of actions that routinely lead to it, to serious injuries and not mere pain, my team-based-fanaticism evaporates and all I can think is, ‘I hope he’s okay.’ I saw Peca go down in Chicago and I felt that way, and I might have written about it if it didn’t seem so wrong and embarrassing, him sprawled on the ice, a hundred Hawks fans around me shouting ‘DIVER’, and me sitting there- in a Canadiens shirt- thinking, ‘please be okay, please be okay, come on, get up, please…’ And even though Lapierre is fine, and I don't even particularly like him, when I see that clip, I get a shadow of the same feeling, the same fear. I see not so much what the actual outcome was, but the much worse outcome that could have been.

I know I’m just begging, with this post, to get flamed from all sides of this, including possibly some Habs fans accusing me of insufficient commitment to the cause. I know that I’m a terrible, unnatural hockey fan, a pretender to the culture. So help me out here, people, help me understand this mess, tell me what I’m missing. Tell me, please, about your rivals and what you feel towards them and why, and tell me what the boundaries of acceptable violence are for you.

I have to know. For my sanity. For my faith in humankind.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey, I hear you. I said the same thing to one of my friends the other night about some hit a hab delivered to the enemy (i don't remember which though), calling it "dirty". Pure heresy. His response: "you can't understand, you never played hockey" (which is true). So I guess since I never played the game in an organized fashion, I can't comment on it at all, leading me to question my "fan-ness" altogether...

Of course, when I tried to bring that argument (you've never done it yourself) in another sphere of conversation, i.e. the Iraq War, all of a sudden it was "just a matter of common sense". So I take it to mean hockey and common sense don't belong in the same sentence, and that's all there is to it.

Julian said...

E, you can find people out there who will honestly defend Bertuzzi for what he did to Steve Moore, so people defending Emery are no suprise.

They are certainly fans like that out there, there are lots of hockey fans in this country/world, and you're gonna get a few crazies among them. Remember, there's no law against sixteen year olds using the internet, sometimes I need to remind myself of that.


I'll admit though that it's certainly easier to defend a player when he's one of your own.
I know you're not a big fan of Raffi Torres, but as an Oilers fan, I am... for the most part. He's known for some hits that have caused some real damage to opposing players.
Have they been legal? Or intentional? It's really tough to say. The difference between a solid shoulder in a guy's chest and into his chin is a few inches, and if you've got 5 inches on the guy, the chin is just a lot mor likely.

If two players are closing in on eachother at a combined 50 miles an hour, there's not much time to bail out of a hit when one of them dishes the puck off at the last second, or drops his head down.
There's just such a small margin of error, what's legal one second can change five hundredths of a second later.
I'm watching the Oilers-Thrashers game from a few days ago right now, and Pisani just took a bit hit to the head and is out with a mild concussion right now. I can't really blame Sutton for it, he's 6'6 and Pinani had his head down for a second. I guess I've gotta give Sutton the benefit of the doubt, and maybe that's just how I feel about most of the borderline hits we see.

Matthew Macaskill said...

Have to agree with you mahn. You tend to like the player when he's on "your" team, but when he's playing for someone else you hate him.

Tucker is a great example for Habs' fans. I mean, we all pretty much hate the guy. But wouldn't you just love to have him back on the Canadiens? Of course, because he brings a dynamic that only a few players can.

I'm a Lapierre fan though. I think his confidence got shot a bit when he was sent back down after playing so well. Then he got the flu while playing with the dogs and lost some weight. He's only really coming back into form now in my opinion.

E said...

julian- i don't necessarily blame you for supporting torres, insofar as in 'borderline' incidents it's pretty natural to see your team in a forgiving light. my concern with torres is that it's one thing to have the occasional clean-hit-gone-wrong, but once it starts becoming habitual, as i gather it is with him (although i don't follow the oilers closely enough to know for sure), it's a different matter. but i've talked enough about that. anyway, i think we all use a fair amount of denial most of the time, because it's easier, for us, to believe that serious violence results from accidents or bad luck rather than the deliberate intent to damage. the question is what we do when we know, for a fact, that there was such intent.

matthew- here's the thing: i don't want tucker back on the habs. not at all, not even a little bit, not in any way, shape, or form. that's what makes me a freakish abberation of hockey-fanness. as to lapierre, like i said, i haven't made up my mind one way or another what to think of him. initially i rather liked him, now i'm not so sure, since it seems as though he's doing more harm than good. he's a kid, still, so we'll see what becomes of him as he develops- both as a player and a person.

Julian said...

Torres has at least two such hits from what I recall, Michalek in the playoffs last year and then Williams earlier this year. He also did some damage to Weight in the finals last year, but I don't recall much debate about whether it was dirty or not.
Scott Stevens has/had a much worse reputation for that sorta stuff.

But yeah, the ones where they aren't borderline at all... those are alot tougher to defend.
I don't know how much you know about the '72 Summit Series, but there's a particular incident involving Bobby Clarke and Valerie Kharlamov that you might find interesting to look at, specifically how Canadians view the incident even now. A little googling should give you more information than you know what to do with.

Anonymous said...

Julian? ... The difference being is the article is about taking a stick to a guys face not about checking someone. Huge ... Huge difference.

alice said...

I'm a New York fan, all sports, but mostly Rangers. I used to be much more of a Knicks fan. It wasn't their suckitude that drove me away. Rather, it was Latrell Sprewell, pure and simple. He's the one who choked his coach on a previous team. At practice. He left and came back. There's no case there for "in the course of play" or even "heat of the moment over-reaction". It was pure-and-simple an act of premeditated violence. Now, once Sprewell got to New York, he turned out to be a witty and charming interview. But still. He'd done something beyond the beyond in terms of acceptability. Yet he still got cheers at the Garden, as well as justifications comparable to those presented for Bertuzzi's mugging Steve Moore.

I'm wondering if the way to look at might be to define the endpoints somehow. A hard check into the boards might be acceptable behavior, even if it leads to an injury and or a penalty. Clearcut headhunting incidents (Bertuzzi on Moore, McSorley on Brashear) are not. Whether or not there's a legitimate cause for legal action isn't important; the fact that we can discuss the possibility is what suggests that these acts are not "hockey as usual". Once you have the endpoints (and I'd find it hard to discuss the matter with someone who wouldn't accept the possibility that there is some action that could be taken on the ice that would be not-hockey), you can explore where to draw the line. And of course, you can (and should) discuss whether Emery crossed the line.

An additional point: just as nothing about Moore is relevant to my negative assessment of Bertuzzi's act, nothing about Lapierre should be relevant to evaluating Emery's act. "He started it" is irrelevant in kindergarten, an it should be, as well, on the ice.

Lee said...

I consider myself to be a fan of both Le Tricolore, having grown up in Ottawa pre-Sens, and of course the Sens, who I've been known to refer to as "God's Holy Warriors of Righteousness". And yes, I cannot, will not condone the slash to the face that Emery dealt to Lapierre. Since you ask, E, other deplorable incidents of hockey violence that spring to mind are Clarke on Kharlamov, Suter on Kariya, Bertuzzi on Moore, Lemieux on Draper, McSorely on Brashear, and Perezhogin on that poor guy. These incidents suggest there exists a fine line beyond which 'grit' becomes 'taint'.

For me, all sport is really about competition against oneself, about pushing yourself to excel at the subtly complex acts of putting a puck or ball in a goal while preventing others from doing the same. Perhaps this is because I've only ever played organized hockey in goal, which is an inherently singular position. But in soccer, I feel the same way, and my play occurs in conjunction with my teammates.

Therefore, in my conception of hockey, pests simply have no place. The pest seeks to perform a Macchiavelian function: win by inciting anger in the opposition through means both fair and foul. I would not cheer for Darcy Tucker, Sean Avery, Ulf Samuelsson or any other pests even if they donned a Sens jersy. And when Chris Neil or Vaclav Varada play[ed] similarly, I don't support them either, despite them wearing Red Black and Gold.

Acceptance of ugly play just because it's carried out by your favourite team is justifying an ugly means for an even uglier end; I will not do it.

P.S: this is not to say I don't think Chris Neil is entirely a pest. He can be an effective player thoroughly deserving of a place on the Sens when he throws clean checks, forchecks hard and drives the net.

Julian said...

Article? Or the blog post we're all discussing?

I thought the topic was how people react when one of their players does something to injure another player on the team, how the fans see their own dirty players.
My point on Raffi's hits was that alot of the time "dirty" is a matter of milliseconds and inches, and it's alot easier to excuse such behavior that way. I brought up Torres because a)he's an Oiler, thus one of "my guys", and b) I knew E didn't like him. He made a good example.

In my second post here I pointed out that there was indeed a huge difference between the borderline stuff and the obvious stuff. The point with Torres is that sometimes it's easy to fuzz the line.

Desdemona said...

Well, I'm a Leaf fan, so of course Tucker is my pest. There are things that he has done in the past which I cannot and will not defend, but that's not to say that he is ONLY a pest. Particularly the last 3 years (or since his brother-in-law Corson left), he's played some really good hockey.

I like the fact that he is able to get under the other teams skin - sometimes without taking or deserving a penalty. I haven't rationalized why I like it. So, I guess since that's what you're asking I should give it a shot.

While the Ovechkins, Crosbys and Brieres are all very impressive players, my attention usually goes to the players who don't usually get a lot of credit - and often not a lot of points - but are just as much a part of the goals and prevented goals as those who receive the media attention. Sundin, Antropov and Ponikarovsky might get the attention here in Toronto, but the line before them, Devereaux, Battaglia, Kilger are an excellent hard working line who do everything possible to have the opposition running in circles and dog-tired before the big guns come on and try to finish the job.

To me, Tucker is one of those guys. When he goes overboard, I do not defend him, but he's more reputation than anything else.

As for this particular hit, I can understand the automatic response from Emery to Lapierre's two fisted slash on his already tender wrist, but that's not to say that I think it was right.

E said...

a few additional thoughts, responding to the accumulated comments, as well as my own further pondering of the matter:

there are at least a dozen incidents of 'borderline' violence in any hockey game, the sort that look dirty to fans on one side and accidental or insignificant to fans on the other. for me, lapierre's 'slash' is one of these- i notice this whole argument developing (in sens-centric fora) that he was trying to re-break emery's wrist, but i don't see that. i see the kid falling, and i don't see any evidence that he was deliberately trying to do anything to emery. but i don't know, maybe he was. goalies get hit with sticks a lot, often deliberately, in most games- spezza thwacked aebischer in the face (mask) with his stick, for example. usually i don't see malicious intent, i just figure that guys don't worry too much about the safety of the opposing goalie when they're trying to score. and usually, the goalie defends himself, or his team defends him, in any number of non-lethal ways.

the thing is, at some point, all these maybe/maybe-not incidents become the rationale for deliberate retaliation, and that's where things get tricky for me. when you start rescripting the event as emery's understandable, unconcious reaction to lapierre's aggression, that is rationalizing emery's behavior- it suggests that lapierre 'brought it on himself', as though emery had no agency in the matter. it justifies escalation, which is the whole problem here, that if any retaliatory action is 'understandable' simply because its retaliatiory, than basically anything is understandable, because you'll always be able to find some chippy, bitchy, borderline incident earlier in the game that can be set up as the underlying cause (see, for example, the whole lapierre-crosby/armstrong-koivu-souray sequence of events in that earlier pens game, and how that is described). my point is that there should be levels of violence, like sticks-to-the-face, that are totally exempt from being brought into this whole he-said/she-said argument about who started it. everyone ends up scrutinizing a couple seconds of footage of some marginal-but-mean-spirited previous incident and ignoring the obviously, intentionally, dangerously vicious response.

and that's maybe my core problem with pests- they provoke escalation, and make violence a matter of team spirit. which may be fine in it's own way, until it leads us to start looking at all violence in that light- the argument becomes about lapierre, and emery becomes an afterthought, just another one of 'the good guys' who was understandably provoked by the big bad opposition. which brings me full circle back to my original problem: the fact that, in hockey, team loyalty seems to trump both justice and human compassion, every time.