Friday, July 20, 2007


Hockey news flotsam du jour: The Derek Boogaard Fight Camp .

This really ought to belong to a more thought-out post, but I’d just like to point out that the problem illustrated by Boogaard’s little educational initiative is not so much whether there should or shouldn’t be fighting in hockey, it’s the problem of trying to maintain fighting’s marginal status- giving it enough legitimacy to remain in hockey, but not so much that it becomes completely institutionalized. Taking for the moment a pro-fighting stance, the problem is that any fighting-advocate is arguing, on the one hand, that it is ‘part of the game’ and therefore should be totally accepted, but on the other hand wants to believe that, when it happens, it is spontaneous and organic and genuinely dangerous.

It’s the assumption that fighting is dangerous that makes people squeamish about Boogaard’s project. Watching grown men pummel each other is entertaining because you can tell yourself that you’re watching freely consenting adults resolve their differences as they see fit, and who can argue with that? Watching little kids do it, on the other hand… well, we’re mostly taught that part of adult responsibility is stopping small children from getting pummeled, even by each other. We’re supposed to protect them from pain, not encourage them to inflict it on each other. Sure, we know that kids fight, we remember that we did when we were young and assume that they continue to do so in secluded corners of the schoolyard when no one is looking. In fact, we know that people who know how to fight well- in any form, on ice or land - learn it by practicing from a young age. But as adults, we generally prefer to maintain plausible deniability when it comes to child-on-child violence.

It is a systematic, disciplinary age we live in. Anything that is ‘part of the game’ at the NHL level is going to be ‘taught’, formally or informally, to tiny little kids who dream of being NHL players. As McErlain mentions , and I have discussed before , there are already numerous accounts of informal ways that children are trained in the ways of hockey fighting, Boogaard’s fight school is unique only in that it does it publically and openly. Rather like parents who buy their kids a keg and go discreetly upstairs while they throw their house party, the argument is that it’s going to happen anyway, and if it’s going to happen, it might as well happen in the ‘safest’ possible circumstances, under adult supervision.

But the logic is twisted, in both cases, for just as half the appeal of the wild teenage house party is that you’re not supposed to do it, half the appeal of fighting is the sense that it’s still vaguely taboo. Although there have been more or less professional fighters in the League for some decades now, the most widely beloved idea of a hockey fight is still the idea that it happens when two ordinary players are overcome with emotion in the heat of the game. It’s not supposed to be safe, it’s not supposed to be planned, it’s not supposed to be a predictable, routine part of the hockey, but rather the unexpected flare of feeling that adds a particular drama to certain nights and certain situations.

Unfortunately, fighting’s marginal permitted-but-discouraged-but-still-desired status is an uncomfortable rarity in contemporary sports, where rules are supposed to be absolute, uniform, and rigid. In this world, anything that is permissible is going to be trained, practiced, disciplined and shaped. If fighting is part of the game in the fullest sense, than the Derek Boogaard Fight Camp is inevitable- it’s just another necessary skill to be developed for the aspiring professional player. If fighting is not part of the game, it should be banned and punished severely in every incidence from on high, as it is in other major sports leagues. But no one in hockey wants to make this either/or choice- we want fighting to remain, but to remain in a peripheral, eccentric, unsystematic, informal kind of way. We want it to preserve an emotional, irrational character- a shot of anarchy through the center of the rule-bound game. In a modern, professional, corporate sport, however, there is little room anymore for such eccentric traditional practices- sooner or later, everything is either rationally systematized or eliminated.

The general belief in the hockey world seems to be that elimination is the ultimate destiny of fighting, and although many are struggling against that apparent trajectory, Boogaard is actually doing it in the most reasonable possible way. If it is to be preserved, the best way to adapt it for modern sensibilities is to convince people that it can be sanitized, organized, and made safe. You know, for kids! Which, of course, takes absolutely all the sexiness out of it, and leads to an ironic vicious circle: if fighting is trained and professionalized within NHL hockey, and increasingly becomes the province of specialists such as Boogaard, then it is increasingly distanced from the rest of the game, becomes a sideshow, and again begins to look expendable. If fighting is supposed to exist as a pressure valve for emotions, then it loses its rationale when undertaken in a disciplined, organized fashion by trained practitioners. Ironically, the very institutional supports which are intended to preserve its place in the game only make it seem more ridiculous and extraneous.

[Sorry for the abruptness of this, more to come on the subject next week...]

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