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.
What is intent? What did Koivu intend to do? Certainly he intended to try to stop
Did he intend to hook
On February 22nd, 2007, in a game between
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
On March 7th, 2007, Ryan Hollweg of the
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
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
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?