Sunday, June 17, 2007

On Judgment

Tell me someday if we talk, are you afraid of being haunted?

Hockey players do terrible things. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just a fact, like ‘hockey players skate’, or ‘hockey players spit a lot.’ Saying that hockey is a contact sport is something like saying that astrophysics is complicated- it’s true, but not exactly the whole truth. Hockey is a high-speed contact sport played on a very small surface full of very hard objects. So, short version, shit happens in hockey, really weird, horrible, painful shit, and when it does, more often than not we just sort of shrug and say ‘that’s hockey’, which again, is true in fact more than in spirit. Because the shit that happens in hockey is not done by hockey, and moreover, it’s not done by God or nature or chaos theory. The environment that hockey is played in is perfectly contained, no lightning strikes or flash floods. Hockey, fun as it is to anthropomorphize, does not do anything of its own volition. No, terrible things in hockey are pretty much always acts of men, and moreover, the deliberate actions of men.

Of course, we- meaning for the moment we-who-watch: fans, analysts, journalists, and so forth- don’t consider all acts of violence in hockey equivalent. We make judgments. We use the ugly moments as the raw materials with which we build our own little systems of hockey ethics, scanning the instant replays frame-by-frame to try to distinguish accidents from attacks, and furthermore, good attacks from bad attacks. We define our relationship to the sport in part based on the way we judge these things, those we’ll accept as natural to the game and those we reject as somehow outside the ethical bounds of ‘our sport’. This is how we negotiate the tensions of hockey, clean vs. dirty, morality vs. strategy, tradition vs. reform.

We all accept, as a precondition, that hockey is an alternate universe from the one we inhabit. A good many actions which are normal, acceptable, and indeed necessary in the course of a hockey game would get you arrested if you tried them on a subway platform or in a supermarket. We know intuitively that there is something different about that little frozen world, but nevertheless, we don’t tend to make our judgments that way. Rather, we more or less transpose the same principles that we use to judge the morality of any ordinary daily event onto the game. When we scan those replays, we’re using the same basic ethical concepts that we use to judge everything else in life: conformity with the rules (laws), intent, emotional state, personal character. The principles of any modern, liberal legal system, at least, as most non-specialists understand it.

They’re also, for the most part, totally unsuited to hockey.

***

On March 10, 2007, in a game between the Canadiens and the Blues, Habs forward Saku Koivu hooked Blues defenseman Bryce Salvador while chasing down a loose puck, pulling the defenseman to the ice and ramming him head-first into the base of the boards at full speed. Salvador’s collarbone was shattered, and he missed the rest of the season. Koivu received a 2 minute hooking penalty. The Blues president declared it a ‘nasty’ play. Neither Koivu nor Salvador commented.

***

What is intent? What did Koivu intend to do? Certainly he intended to try to stop Salvador, or slow him down. Certainly he didn’t intend to shatter the man’s clavicle. After the play Koivu stood there for a long while, over the collapsed body, looking nothing so much as profoundly confused, as if he couldn’t figure out how he’d gotten from point A to point C, although the sequence of events was perfectly natural and even predictable.

Did he intend to hook Salvador? Maybe. What does it take to form intent? Is an instinct, or an impulse, the same as intent? When we speak of intent, we usually mean that process that exists between purpose and plan, the thing that takes an impulse, parses it, imagines the actions most likely to satisfy it, and then executes those actions. True, we can form intent very quickly, in only a few seconds, but hockey plays take place in fractions of fragments of seconds. Often we associate the idea of intent with the word ‘deliberate’- as in phrases beginning ‘he deliberately intended to…’- but where is there ever ‘deliberation’ in hockey? Maybe during the commercial breaks, before a face off, those moments when they wait behind the net for a completed change, but does anyone ever intend anything on a breakaway? Chasing a loose puck? Digging along the boards? What is the difference between acting intentionally and acting instinctively? It’s doubtful that Koivu intended the hook as a hockey strategy- it was obviously going to draw a penalty even if no harm had resulted, and he wasn’t stopping an immediate scoring chance. He didn’t plan it, but neither was it an accident. It was a misdirected instinct, something barely even conscious at the back of his brain associating the impulse to catch Salvador with the action of hooking, a 100th of a second between perception and action.

***

On February 22nd, 2007, in a game between Buffalo and Ottawa, Senator Chris Neil caught Sabre Chris Drury with a blindside shoulder to the head. Drury’s helmet was knocked off and he ended up landing face first on the ice, bleeding heavily. Drury missed four games with a concussion. No penalty was assessed on the play. Subsequently, Neil declared the hit fully clean and suggested that it was Drury’s fault for ‘having his head down’, while Sabres coach Lindy Ruff declared it dirty and a deliberate attempt to injure. Drury refused to characterize it either way, saying only that he was grateful not to have suffered any permanent damage, and that he understood the pressure on Neil to ‘finish his checks.’

***

What is a clean hit? Leave aside the examples for a second and think abstractly- what is the definition of ‘clean’, the principle of it? In hockey, the word ‘clean’ is inevitably applied to violent actions that are often, from a practical standpoint, quite messy, the kind of actions that inspire the refs to go borrow a water bottle from the goalie and make perfunctory attempts to get the pink smears off the ice. So it’s not exactly a literal use of the term we’re dealing with here. Figuratively, ‘clean’ is the adjective that denotes acceptable, expected and irreproachable violence. ‘Clean’ is the natural partner of ‘good’- there’s no such thing as a bad, clean hit.

‘Clean’ in hockey, like ‘good’ in everything, is subjective. Although the use of the term is supposed to end controversy- there’s no reason to argue about a clean hit- it’s almost never used except in controversial situations. Paradoxically, guys who get repeatedly hit with penalties and suspensions for their checks get the term ‘clean’ applied to their actions more than those who don’t- a player who hits a lot and never crosses anyone’s lines or deals out any significant injuries tends to go unnoticed and undiscussed. Often, it’s a term of self-defense, first uttered in a post-game interview by a coach or player on the offending side of an incident, thrown down as a challenge to any who would dare to question the legality or morality of an action, ‘That was a good, clean, hockey play.’ Used properly- and it must be used with the proper attitude, a kind of self-righteous swagger- it shuts down opposing viewpoints by claiming the ground of hockey-authenticity, implying that those who might be troubled by such things don’t actually understand what they think they saw. Chris Neil is a master of this, belligerent true-believer who can toss out that cliché like a mantra, the credo quia absurdum of hockey. When he says it, we believe, because he believes. And he believes because it is what he was trained to believe.

Hockey training, once acquired, is largely non-negotiable. It can be modified and refined, but never entirely reversed or undone. In most cases the player himself has no control over how he is trained, since he begins it as a child, with all of a child’s disadvantages. It’s a process of operant conditioning, not education. Some things are drilled, certainly, but most are learned by a fairly harsh system of punishments and rewards sustained over a period of years. Some actions result in more ice time, more media attention, more cheers, more shiny trinkets, while others result in benchings, demotions, and public embarrassment. Do good, get a biscuit, do bad, get slapped on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. It’s a powerful way to structure behavior, all the more powerful because it’s inconsistent and unpredictable, which we all know- from those terrifying, 1950’s era psychologists with their white lab coats and thick-framed glasses- leads to a deeper, more reflexive conditioned response. Of course, like all animals, like all humans, some hockey players are more receptive to conditioning than others, but trainable is itself a precondition for their success, especially for those at the bottom of the talent-hierarchy. Seeking the approval of authority, responding quickly and eagerly to the offer of reward or the threat of punishment, a coachable player is a good and useful player.

There’s been, apparently, an escalation in serious injuries resulting from ‘clean’ hits to the head, and people argue about the reasons for it. Some blame the equipment, while others prefer to believe it’s something more nebulous, like a lack of mutual respect or ethical standards amongst the current generation of players. But whatever the cause, people seem certain that something has changed.

I sometimes wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with differential training than anything else. Once upon a time, they say, virtually all professional hockey players were Canadian, or American from parts so close to the northern border as made no difference. Most players were products of the same system of training and the same culture of play. They knew, instinctively, what to expect from each other, where danger was likely to come from and when. But now? Players come from all over, from every part of North America, most of Europe and even beyond, all the way to Central Asia. There are easily 6 or 7 major systems of training, different hockey cultures, that now all feed into the same League. Even if players know, rationally, the variant shapes of the different styles they’re playing, that doesn’t mean they have the instincts for it- conditioning is sub-rational and has nothing to do with what you know or don’t know in the front of your head. These hits- the concussion-inducing head-checks that have been this season’s premiere controversy- are disproportionately the actions of Canadian-trained players on non-Canadian-trained players. Chris Neil is a product of a system that trains players to do what he does, but equally trains players to protect themselves from what he does. Players who came up in a system that favors a different style of checking, either because of more restrictive rules or simply different values, aren’t conditioned to that kind of play, and it’s not surprising that their instincts fail them sometimes, at the worst possible moment. One person’s ‘good clean hockey play’ is another’s ‘deliberate attempt to injure’, and the difference in perspective isn’t always just a matter of defending your guy to the bitter end, but sometimes very much a matter of irreconcilable differences in players’ deepest, most ingrained sense of what hockey is and how it is played.

***

On March 7th, 2007, Ryan Hollweg of the New York Rangers knocked Islander Chris Simon into the boards with a borderline-legal body check. Simon picked himself up, and a second later he took his stick and slashed it, with both hands, across Hollweg’s face. Hollweg lay immobile on the ice for several minutes, but eventually returned to finish the game. Simon incurred a 25 game suspension. He subsequently issued an apology saying that he had no clear memory of the incident, but that he found his own behavior disgusting.

***

What is emotion? It’s something that players are supposed to include in their game, yes? It’s one of the first criticisms directed at any chronically losing team- they’re not playing with enough emotion. Our understanding is that emotion is something that wins hockey games, particularly for underdogs- those who lack talent can still sometimes pull out a victory over a superior opponent if they play emotionally, if they get angry, if they take it personally, if they put their heart into it.

But emotion is not desirable only because it wins games, it’s desirable because it’s entertaining. Hockey fans love games that run hot. They speak of playing with ‘hate’ and ‘anger’, of the importance of ‘intimidation’ and ‘sending a message’. Retaliatory violence is not just expected, but eagerly anticipated- after a particularly nasty match, we desperately hope that the next one will be somehow even nastier. The rivalries that the NHL tries to build into its schedule are based on the presumption that games played with genuine, personal hate are better entertainment.

The problem with emotions is that they’re by definition irrational and therefore cannot be regulated. You can’t create a rivalry, or predict reliably which games will turn personal, but just as surely you can’t shut down those kind of feelings once they’ve begun. And as much as it might be entertaining, genuine hate is pretty scary as well, and dangerous for the players and the game. Hockey fans are very quick to turn on those, like Simon, who they think have crossed some particular line.

So if the physical discipline expected of hockey players is difficult, the emotional discipline is nearly impossible. The ideal disposition is one of incredibly intense but fleeting feelings, a sort of Memento­- psychosis where anger is all flares and gunshots, engulfing one second and completely gone the next. We don’t want to deal with real anger, real hatred, the kind of slow-burn loathing that just builds and builds over time to real hate, real attempted manslaughter. We don’t want real emotions, we just want good acting. We complain about violence that seems fake or theatrical, but it’s the same reason we complain about a bad performance in a movie- it’s fake not because it wasn’t really felt, it’s fake because it didn’t include us, didn’t draw us into a story. We know that it’s impossible for them to be really, truly emotionally invested in every single game. There are too many, and during the short, dull days of midseason, the long straightaway between the opening and closing sprints, it’s difficult even for fans to escape that blank sensation of trudging from one game to the next. Our attention spans short, we get bored, and we count on them to manufacture emotions to replace the ones we want but don’t have.

They are expected to hate to within a very narrow zone- hot enough to seem real, hot enough that we can feel it in the stands, hot enough to throw a punch or a cross-check, but cool enough to let it go, get over it, not take a stupid penalty, not permanently hurt anyone, not embarrass the League. And sure, it’s easy enough to try to define those lines theoretically, but trying doing it when you’re really fucking angry. Go ahead, work up a real, pathological raging hatred at someone or something and see how good you are at observing the kind of lines you, in your calmer moments, know you should. If you’re like most people, you can’t do that- you get really angry and you say and do awful things that you have to make scraping, teary, hung-over apologies for the next morning. The only thing that saves you is that angry, for you, is comparatively rare- you don’t get that angry that often, so you can view it as an occasional lapse, a moment out of character. Anger isn’t part of your job description. You’re not supposed to make a professional commitment to hating people.

They’re supposed to play on an ‘edge’ whose location shifts year to year and game to game, depending on the context, depending on the moods of the fans, the powers-that-be in the League. I’ve asked hockey fans repeatedly to define for me the kind of action that would be, a priori, no matter what the result (injury or no), would be absolutely and totally wrong and indefensible. I have yet to get any consensus on that. There is no one proper ‘edge’ in hockey, there are 432,691 different edges- play to what some coaches, some communities consider ‘the edge’, and for a different coach, a different community, a different context you’re already way, way beyond the pale.

So for most ‘hot’ incidents- that is, those that are committed for obviously emotional reasons, that can’t be interpreted as a strategic play that just went sort of wrong, the standard of judgment seems to be based mostly on two criteria: did any permanent injury to the victim result?, and did it look scary on TV? Of the two, scary-on-TV is the more powerful. Chris Simon’s stick-swing was not the only stick-swinging incident in the NHL last season, indeed, it probably isn’t even the stick-related offense that resulted in the most serious injury. But it most definitely looked the worst on TV. And it looked the worst because it looked angry. Too angry for comfort. Too close to the wrong edge. It looked seriously angry, not theatrical angry, not hockey’s adorable pistols-at-dawn-for-the-honor-of-my-goalie angry, but just plain hateful angry. Just raw retaliation: you fucked with me, I will put you down. Nothing romantic, no compelling narrative, no sense of honor or tradition, nothing to dress it up and make it exciting for us. From an amoral standpoint, Chris Simon’s greatest error wasn’t what he did- hockey fans have forgiven worse before and they’ll do it again- it that he didn’t present it properly, he didn’t let us in on his anger, didn’t let us share it and feed on it, and because of that, no one empathized with him and no one defended him.

***

On April 15, 2007, a Penguins-Senators playoff game, Senator Patrick Eaves was coming around the side of the Penguins net with the puck when Colby Armstrong hit him with a shoulder to the head. Eaves was knocked unconscious and had to be removed on a stretcher, and remained out with a concussion until the final games of the playoffs. Both Penguins coach Michel Therrian and Senators coach Bryan Murray considered the hit clean, and Armstrong issued statements both defending the legality of the play and reiterating that he did not intend any injury towards Eaves, as well as a personal apology.

***

What is a dirty player? About five minutes after this incident happened, the most discussed question in the hockey world became, ‘Is Colby Armstrong dirty?’ and it stayed that way for about a week. It was not the first time Armstrong had been on the infliction-side of a debatable hit, he’d concussed a Hurricane earlier in the season, and his squishing of Koivu, while resulting in no significant injury, had precipitated considerable debate in Montreal. But even here, where the Koivu hit was widely regarded as dirty, that label didn’t really stick to Armstrong himself. Look at him, people said, he’s young and skinny, he looks like a flamingo on skates, there’s nothing dangerous there. And anyway, everyone outside of Montreal seemed to think it was a good hit, one of those things where clean/dirty is all about the color of your jersey.

Until he put Eaves down, and then the YouTube clips of pretty much every check he’d ever thrown were put up to scrutiny again, watched in an entirely different light. Where once they might have been seen as discreet events, they had now become a pattern, to be used to form future judgments. The building blocks of Colby Armstrong’s shiny new reputation.

After most of these incidents, the offending player has the good sense to leave the ice, or at bare minimum keep his face off the cameras for a few minutes- they tend to develop an instantaneous, consuming fascination with their skate laces. But Armstrong didn’t, and being as how he is young and apparently not very adept at controlling his expressions, his face showed rather a lot. He looked terrified, like a very small mouse in an unfamiliar maze. You’d think he was the one got hit. I think he just saw that he’d finally gotten himself a reputation, and wasn’t sure if it was one he wanted.

There are players who embrace ‘dirty’ as a theatrical role, scene-chewers who take the concept of villain to frantic heights of mustache-twirling intensity. I don’t think Armstrong is one of them. In interviews, which he gives a lot of, he seems almost pathetically desperate to be liked. He’s made a sort of side career out of giving cute quotations about his more illustrious teammates. Unable to equal them in terms of talent, he is not a one-in-a-million player, he’s barely even a one-in-a-hundred player, and his future success is not just tied to his actions but to the fortunes of the Penguins as a whole. So he tries to make himself useful to the team, a good guy to have in the room, a multi-functional, useful player. On the ice, he wants to be Good Canadian Boy- tough, gritty, intense, but in an honorable way.

Having a reputation as a dirty player is not something to be taken lightly. Sure, no matter what you do, there will be some people who will want you on their team, but once you’ve gotten that label, it sticks, and it changes the way everyone- fans, teammates, opponents- treat you. Once you have a reputation as dirty, opponents will play you as though you are, pre-emptively. They will rough you up for no good reason, the crowd will cheer, the refs won’t see it, and your own team will just shrug and figure it’s to be expected. And unless you’re Sean Avery and love to be widely hated, it offers few rewards to counterbalance the pervasive contempt. [Oh, and mention the word ‘shnik’ in the comments section, win a free cupcake! Or a free shnik, if you'd prefer.]

People wondered why Armstrong apologized to Eaves personally, since an apology is not usually considered compatible with the assertion that a hit was ‘clean’. But it wasn’t really a personal apology, was it? It was as much a media action as his public apology, a backhanded plea to the whole hockey world not to judge him too harshly. In this he is actually quite typical. Hockey players spend a lot of time trying to convince us that they are not bad people. Sometimes they apologize and sometimes they don’t, but always they try very hard to explain. The average hockey apology is only a tiny fragment of apology and a lot of explanation, and the explanation- whether accompanied by conciliatory or defiant words- is generally the same: I’m not a bad person, it’s just… that’s the way things happen in hockey. Don’t hold me personally responsible. Don’t hate me.

***

On March 21, 2007, in the early shifts of a game between the Flyers and the Rangers, a fight began between Colton Orr and Todd Fedoruk. After a few seconds of ineffectual hugging, Orr got an arm free and threw three punches. The third punch caught Fedoruk directly in the face. Fedoruk fell straight to the ice and, unable to move, was taken out on a gurney. He subsequently had to have a plate put in his face to repair a broken orbital bone, and did not play for the rest of the season.

***

Maybe you think that, because this is a post about judgments, it’s about controversial incidents. It’s not, except insofar as controversy reveals what consensus hides- all the oddly-shaped little corners of how we judge things.

The Fedoruk fight wasn’t controversial. Of course, it got attention, even a little more than the average hockey fight, because it was one of those rare ones where somebody actually did get hurt. Dramatic, cool-looking hurt, not just ordinary-hurt. Fact is, most hockey fights aren’t even ‘won’; it’s rare that a straight-on, full-force punch actually lands, even rarer that it actually flattens its target the way Fedoruk was flattened. But there’s nothing to argue about here. It was a perfectly proper hockey fight, the proper timing, the proper participants. Unlike, say, Kim Johnsson, Todd Fedoruk is supposed to get punched in the face. That’s his job. Getting carted out on a stretcher every now and again is part of it. Too bad, we shrug, but that’s the nature of his role- he knew what it was when he took it, and he’s accepted the risk.

So all in all, a mostly forgettable incident, particularly in comparison to some of the others I’ve referred to. There’s only one reason I remember this fight in particular, and unfortunately, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the fight itself- it’s because of this post that Mirtle put up a bit later, my absolute favorite hockey-blog post of the season. Discussions about fighting tend to bring out the shrillest and most dogmatic aspects of hockey fans, it’s a ‘debate’ with the sides and positions so rigidly set that it’s hardly worthy of the term anymore. Which is what makes Mirtle’s post so interesting: it raises an essential question without resorting to a formulaic conclusion. Is fighting in hockey exploitative? Mirtle points out that Fedoruk wants to play hockey, and play in the NHL, so deeply that he will do anything, no matter how dangerous, no matter how cruel, in order to do it. 10 plates in his face and he’ll still come back for more, until days turn into years, even if it means that every single bone will get broken again and again and again. The post’s question, ultimately, is whether or not it’s fair or humane for us to exploit his desperate love of the game for our own entertainment. Is it right to keep players around whose sole purpose is to give and receive injuries because it’s fun to watch?

That’s a huge, wrenching question that I’m not yet prepared to confront (another 5,000 words for another long dark intermission of the soul), but I want to step back to the preceding point, about the desire to play, because I think that gets right to the core of the ultimate inadequacy of our judgments. And they are inadequate, that’s why the arguments never end, that’s why hockey is so beset with chronic controversy- controversy that fans lament (it gives such an unfair impression of the sport) even as we gleefully roll around in it like rhinos in mud. I don’t think that fans- me, you, any of us, even those of y’all fortunate enough to play recreationally- really understand what the desire to play hockey is, for people who do it professionally. Recreational hockey is a pastime. Professional hockey is a life. We make our judgments from the standpoint of rational, modern people who- fanatical though we are- still have only a partial relationship with the game. Yes, we love it, but push us enough, and we’ll eventually admit: yes, it’s just a game, just fun, just entertainment, not one of life’s Big Important Things. Our engagement is indirect, vicarious, and we can pick it up and put it down at will. If and when the game on the ice goes beyond our subjective point of tolerance, wherever that is, we can use our judgments to put ourselves at a safe distance from the whole mess. Players don’t get that privilege. Whatever happens on the ice, anywhere in the League, even if it’s in some third-party game, it affects them in ways it will never, ever affect us.

Unlike us, active hockey players are extremely reluctant to judge each other. The hours and days after some action has stirred up fan/media controversy seem to bring out the existentialist philosopher in your average skater, for while the various watchers are all pouring over slow motion clips and slinging ultimatums and insults and trying to outdo each other in either pretensions of shock or pretensions of toughness, players like to use their mandatory microphone time to step back and think about the game. Reluctant to comment on the actual situation or specific people involved, they often retreat to generalizations about hockey and the League as a whole. They’ll talk about the past (‘You didn’t used to see things like this.’), or the future (‘maybe the League should take a look at that for next season.’). Or they’ll talk about hockey in the abstract, that thing-that-happened is (or isn’t) capital-h Hockey. Sometimes they’ll talk about feelings- not their feelings, necessarily, but the feelings of hypothetical others (‘you hate to see that kind of thing happen.’). But the point is that at those times when we are most embedded in the details of the game- exactly whose elbow was exactly how many inches too high, precisely how many seconds passed in between X giving up the puck and Y laying the check- they are most abstract, speaking only vaguely about ‘that sort of thing’.

Of course they must make private judgments, if only for strategic purposes and good sense- it pays to know who might have an unusually careless way with the stick or a penchant for ‘accidental’ knee hits the same way it pays to know who habitually makes lazy turnovers, it allows you to play them more effectively. But I doubt that their private judgments have the same moralistic tone that ours do, and the near-phobia of making them public is pervasive. It is a very, very serious thing these days when one hockey play player publicly, openly, seriously criticizes the actions of another. Whatever they shout at each other on the ice, whatever they might think, they keep it there and self-consciously away from us.

Maybe there’s a pragmatic reason for it. Teams are not stable entities these days, it’s likely that the average player will wear at least 3 different logos in his career, and even those who stay in one place would be idiots to believe that the faces around them will stay the same one year to the next. Last year’s arch-nemesis could very easily be next year’s teammate, and a harsh judgment uttered too hastily could make some future dressing room a very uncomfortable place.

But I think it’s a bit more Socratic, their reason for reserving public judgment: They know enough to know how little they know. They know how completely different that world is, how quickly things that seem good and right can turn disastrous, how cruelly one’s instincts and training and feelings can betray, how impossible it is to understand why they do the things they do in a given moment. They do not talk about humane morals and liberal values, they do not use the language or adopt the structure of the criminal justice system. And whereas we have many, conflicting principles and needs we try to reconcile in our judgments, when players- however involved or not involved in any violent event- talk about them, there is only one basic value: the desire to play. It comes up again and again, every time they’re compelled to get up in front of a bunch of microphones and explain something unexplainable, so much so that it starts to seem like any old sports cliché, totally devoid of meaning. But sometimes I think it’s the only really honest thing any professional player ever says to the public, “I just want to play.” That’s the first and last principle, the only rationale, the only justification, the only point that determines condemnation or absolution. No act is wrong, no matter how nasty, no matter how painful, no matter how abominable the intent or the result, unless it jeopardizes the ability to play- their own or someone else’s.

We romanticize their desires, get all warm and fuzzy and sentimental about ‘a passion for the game’, but beneath all the mythology, a passion for hockey is a hard, cold sort of passion. Most passion is latently dangerous, there’s always that potential, but hockey-passion is, like everything else in the sport, openly, immediately, and intensely so. We divide them-that-play, mentally, subjectively, into good guys and bad guys. Part of the reason that nobody outside of the Blues organization (and now me) said anything when Saku Koivu took that defenseman down is because, for the last several years anyway, Saku Koivu has been put in the ‘good guy’ list, and few people will ever again interpret anything he does as bad. Similarly, Chris Simon was easy to condemn because he’s Chris Simon, and a lot of people had already labeled him a hopeless fuck-up long before that ultimate moment.

So make a list, if you think you can, of all the bad guys, all the pests or goons, all the dirty players and evil men, who, if they were simply lifted out of the game tomorrow, would leave only hockey-as-it-should-be, good pure uncontroversial hockey. I’ve tried making that list, but I can’t anymore, I can’t see good and bad, all I see is lucky and unlucky. On the one side, those who are talented enough that they have never been asked to do anything questionable for the sake of the team, those who lack the training or aptitude for violence, those who’ve just been fortunate that the seconds and inches have gone mostly in their favor; and then the rest, for whom the desire to play can only be fulfilled by compromising almost every other principle they might otherwise believe in; hockey ethics in exchange for human ethics. The desire is the same, just as driving from the most skilled to the least, and they will all do what they have to do to live that particular dream. On the ice, there are no nice guys, only guys who haven’t yet had to be cruel.

We admire that passion for hockey that all successful players have, and well we should, because it is admirable, the depth of it, the purity. Most of us have things we’re passionate about. Not many of us would be willing to get repeatedly hit in the face for them, year after year. But let’s not have any illusions- there’s nothing warm or fuzzy about the internal need that drives people to professional hockey. It’s brave, it’s amazing, it’s maybe even lovable in some way, but it’s also sadistic.

Do they ever really regret it, I wonder, do they regret the cruelty, the unfairness, the brief flashes of hatred that create such strange and hideous moments? On long, hot, off-season nights when they’re more human than hockey player, do they ever regret the irrational brutality of it all? I don’t know. Probably some do often and most do at least once, and sometimes I think maybe all of them do when their careers are over and done with and they have to live full-time in the real world.

Certainly ex-hockey players seem to develop a comfort with judging the successive generations, once they become coaches, GMs, and analysts, who often will participate in the exact same ethical debates as the fans. Again, though, the willingness to judge seems to develop with distance from the actual frozen world itself- once a player can step back and observe the entirety of his own career, see everything he did and didn’t do, he can determine then what sort of a player he was, and whether or not that is compatible with the kind of person he is. But until that happens, I don’t think they ever really know what they’re capable of, where their emotions and instincts will lead them, until the moment comes. They find out at that same moment as all the rest of us.

It’s easy to judge when you don’t have to live in that world. It’s easy to condemn things that you have not been trained to do and will never be asked to do, in situations you will never be put in. But similarly, it’s easy to forgive and rationalize violence that you won’t have to live with the consequences of, either as perpetrator or victim. It’s easy to be tough when it’s not your body, your brain, your reputation, your career, or your conscience on the line.

I do not understand what life is like in the frozen world.

Who am I to judge?

12 comments:

E said...

holy shit, i've killed my blog.

grey wall said...

probably. although, I have nothing to add. Your post doesn't so much as invite discussion, but end it.

in a good way.

E said...

ain't no such thing as shutting down discussion in a good way.

i don't suppose i could bribe someone into discussing this with me? name your price! firstborn child? immortal soul? i can deal. no?

*sigh*

well, i guess it's time to move on.

grey wall said...

well, if you want discussion, why not give your opinion on the Bertuzzi incident. As I understand it, it was before you began following hockey religiously, right?

He was accused of premeditation and so was the club for harbouring the resentment against moore in the locker room weeks after steve moore's hit on Naslund.

The resentment and anger fueled Bertuzzi. Afterwards, his apology was genuine enough. He didn't have the "hopeless fuck-up" label before this incident but, outside of Canucks fans, he is forevermore a pariah. Certainly, Moore hasn't forgiven him. Bertuzzi's reputation before that incident was that of a power forward, who played hockey at its most brutal level, and not that of Simon's.

Yet to this day, criminal proceedings are being filed against him by Moore (I think I'm correct in that there is some kind of lawsuit going on).

And yet, it could be argued (cheekily), that most of his injuries came from the pile-up afterwards rather than the punch itself. Bertuzzi certainly had no control of the situation at that point. He only threw the snowball that became the Avalanche (i know... nice pun, eh)

grey wall said...

certainly, since then Bertuzzi is damaged goods. Emotionally, he can't play on the savage level he used to play at that typfies power forwards. his old game is gone.

depending on how you look at it, he was gone for about 23 games or a year and a half. Others say, he shouldn't be allowed to come back until Moore's back.

From your vantage point as a non-hockey fan back then (i'm assuming at this point), what light can you shed?

as a canucks fan, i'm biased here so I won't venture anything. i'm wondering if after all this time, whether the discussion will ignite a firestorm still. because like i said, there is nothing more that I can add to your post. its complete as far as I can tell

alice said...

I thought Moore's action against Bertuzzi was a civil action at this point. I know there have been hearings about jurisdiction.

Doogie said...

I dunno that you've killed it, so much as given people a lot to think about. I mean, there are bunches of us (and by "us" I mean mostly Canadian hockey fans) who talk about the good old days when men were real men, they brawled and slashed and elbowed and didn't wear helmets or adequate padding, and said and did far more uncharitable things on the ice than you generally see today. But at the same time, you occasionally see stories from "goons," the designated bad guys in this movie, who wanted more of a role than Black Hat #3. Whether it was because they didn't have the talent, or whether someone stopped developing it somewhere along the way because having someone to send over the boards every time Bobby Clarke was flattened became more important, they were pretty well laughed out of the League for wanting to be more than hired muscle, more than the guy smacking the baseball bat into his hand menacingly while the mob boss lamented how you foolishly wronged him. It actually kind of hurts to read those stories, because you see exactly the sort of thing you've written here: guys willing to do anything for the chance to play, but never actually getting a proper chance to play. It would be the equivalent of keeping one guy in the pitching rotation whose sole purpose is to throw the ball at someone's head. In some ways, stories like that, or essays like this one, hold up a mirror that we'd really rather not look at. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; merely one that takes a bit of adjusting to, and a lot more consideration than the knee-jerk, Don Cherry-esque reactions you'll frequently see (and I lump myself into this group without hesitation).

If there's one point in particular I'd like to point to besides that one, the one about different training grounds and codes of conduct resulting in part of the confusion over hits to the head and so forth is one that I hadn't thought of, but is probably more of a contributing factor than we generally hear. To this day, in the WHL, if you're coming through the middle with your head down, you have to expect you're going to get clobbered with extreme prejudice. In the OHL or QMJHL, the former of which has a penalty for hitting the head, and the latter of which simply doesn't have that same culture, that's not really the case. It is, of course, also true that the hard plastic shoulder pads contribute to the degree of the injury, and it's certainly plausible that the new regulations of the past generation or so against retributive violence have resulted in a more lax attitude towards your fellow player, I can absolutely see some players just not anticipating that hit at all. For example, when Milan Michalek was playing in the Czech Republic as a teenager, do you think anyone ever came at him in open ice? Probably not very often, at any rate. Consequently, is there any way he could have expected Raffi Torres to blast him into next season the way he did? Probably not. But the way Torres was trained, that's what you do: you finish your check, and if he has his head down, well, that was his own Goddamned fault, go about your business. Who's right in that case? Depends on how you were raised, in the hockey sense. I think it was borderline, but it generally fits with my perceptions of how hockey is played, so I can deal with it. Others, not so much. That's what makes this whole thing all the more difficult: just because it's how the game used to be played, or the way certain people play it or want it to be played, doesn't make it the "right" way to do things, and that's not something all of us -- on any of the numerous, shaded sides of this issue -- can necessarily accept, or at least, not with great ease.

Thank you for once again challenging my perceptions. If you'll excuse me, I have some contemplating to do.

E said...

so the price of conversation is having to give an opinion on the bertuzzi incident? are you sure you wouldn't rather have my firstborn child? that might be easier...

obviously, if i'm reluctant to offer judgments on contemporary incidents that i saw myself, i'm even more wary of trying to judge things that happened before my time. particularly the bertuzzi thing, because it was obviously such a huge moment in the hockey world that it's difficult to understand what things were like before it. i've heard the story, dozens of times from dozens of different perspectives, but in almost all cases someone was trying to use it to make a point, so all the versions are colored by what people want it to mean.

i will offer two thoughts, off the top of my head:

1) both of the elements that one could argue 'caused' it are generally considered hockey-virtues, a sense of rivalry or personal hatred between teams, and a player with a particularly violent, edgy style. the thing is, the resulting act was an easily predictable outcome of those inputs. so while i'm sure the shock in the hockey world afterwards was real enough, it strikes me that it exposes a pervasive cognitive dissonance- embracing the causes while trying to disavow the consequences.

2) i cannot imagine the freakin' impossible position that bertuzzi finds himself in right now. on the one hand, he absolutely cannot get himself into another one of these situations- for his career and probably for his own psychological stability, i doubt he could handle being at the center of another similar controversy. but on the other hand, he's repeatedly being told that his game is valueless without that extra layer of brutality that he used to have and now doesn't. from a human perspective, we should all totally understand the desire of someone who has done something horrific not to put himself in a position to do it again, but as hockey fans, there's absolutely no sympathy for that.

it's sort of funny that you consider the post complete, because i don't. it's a natural analogue of at least 2 other topics i'm going to have to address down the line, although hopefully in a more concise manner. after all, somebody somewhere has to make some sort of judgments, otherwise there's nothing to make it hockey and not free-for-all ice massacre. i just can't find any solid ground for making them that doesn't implicitly or explicitly contradict the pre-established principles and values of the game.

doogie, i'll get to your points in a little bit...

E said...

okay, doogie, first of all, you have to stop using your telepathic powers against me. it's getting kinda scary.

so a couple of things: firstly, one of the things that really interests me that you referred to is the question of whether hockey was actually more violent back in the day. because as much as i see old-school hockey fans talking in the way you describe, about back when men were men etc, they'll also say that back then players were more respectful, more ethical, invested in the code, etc. i remember once i was talking with one of my older hockey-fan colleagues (i don't know how old, all he'll ever say is that he's old enough to remember going to see rocket richard play). anyway, we were discussing the neil/drury incident, and he started by saying, "hey, you shoulda seen back in the day, when there were bench-clearing brawls and everything." but then i mentioned that i'd read somewhere that there'd actually been increases in concussions and some other types of injuries in recent years, and he said "yeah, it does seem that way." and so i asked, so was it really that much more violent back in the day? and he thought for a minute, and then said, "it's different. i don't know about more or less, just different." and that does seem to be the general sense of things, that- leaving aside the question of an increase or decrease- violence now is not quite the same as it was. i'm curious about that. something for my history project, i guess.

the unfair thing is that talent can buy players out of a lot of difficult choices. does sidney crosby love hockey enough to maim for it? probably, but he's never going to have to face the question in those bare terms, whereas the guys who are going to be hired to 'look out for him' for the duration of his career have to face it every morning in exactly those terms.

Doogie said...

I don't mean to keep reading your mind, E. I'll try to be more discreet in the future. ;)

Well, if you go back far enough, there's a clear and obvious sense that hockey was more violent. Read any hockey history book that goes back to the '20s and before, and you'll see that hockey was an almost disgustingly brutal game, more bloodsport than finesse. As for trying to compare more recent times, i.e. within the post-Original Six era, I think it's fair to say that while there may have been more egregious violent incidents by number in the 70s and 80s -- bench-clearing brawls, stick fights, crowd-charging, etc. -- the game today might actually be more dangerous, for many of the reasons that have been brought up (different codes, equipment, questionable respect/lack of immediate physical disincentive towards dirty play).

E said...

Read any hockey history book that goes back to the '20s and before, and you'll see that hockey was an almost disgustingly brutal game, more bloodsport than finesse.

see, this is why hockey-history is a great summer project, because one comes across things like this:

"It is too bad if a game like hockey, which is becoming very popular, and in this northern country where the sport can be played longer than in other parts, is to be spoiled by rough playing. It is in the interest of the game that in the future a firm referee who who will make both side adhere strictly to the rules be appointed."

- Editorial, Edmonton Bulletin, 1896

still workin' on that one.

KD said...

like your blog. how about an update to the gender stuff here though?
"No, terrible things in hockey are pretty much always acts of men, and moreover, the deliberate actions of men."