[Disclaimer: This is not a fully thought-out post. This is not a rational argument. This is not a manifesto or a proposal. And this is not- let me repeat that, not- once more for emphasis NOT- about whether or not there ought to be violence, either in general or in any specific form, in hockey. Do not leave me comments saying, ‘That’s the way it is and stop trying to change it, bitch.’ I’m not trying to change anything. Change is not my game. I’m absolutely accepting that it is exactly what it is. What I’m trying to understand is how ‘what it is’ effects myself and other fans, people who don’t play but interact with the game primarily through watching. It might be seen as a sort of companion piece to 'On Judgment', which can be found on the sidebar links.]
Let’s pretend we’re somewhere else.
Let’s pretend its 3:17 AM on a Tuesday, and we’re sitting in a bar. Not a club or anything fancy, just a very ordinary neighborhood tavern type thing (if your neighborhood bar isn’t open at 3:17 AM on Tuesdays, you live in the wrong neighborhood). Let’s pretend we’ve been drinking quite a bit for quite a while and chatting drunken-style about all sorts of things. Maybe I serenaded you with my very moving version of Rex’s Blues, and you were (being drunk) appropriately appreciative. Now it’s very late and things are getting pretty quiet and we’re not in
[Pause. Deep breath.]
Sometimes I think that watching hockey makes me a bad person.
Back last November, I was watching an Oilers-Red Wings game, and among other things, I watched Raffi Torres hit Jason Williams. It happened as these hits so often do, Williams coming around the net chasing the puck, eyes focused on the ice, not paying attention to what he should have been, and Torres caught him, smashed his shoulder up into his face at full speed, a split second that almost might have passed as rapidly as so many huge hits do, the victim shaking it off with a few dazed blinks and maybe going to the bench to pull himself together. But that’s not what happened, and I watched still, the slow-motion replay from every angle, watched Williams’ body go flying up, crash face-first onto the ice surface and slide into the corner, a long red streak tracing its path. I watched that second again and again as the commentators replayed it, watched that exact moment where Torres’ shoulder hit his head so hard that his brain lost control of it’s synapses and drove his mind out of his body in an electric flash, and I knew that in that second Jason Williams, whatever he is that is him, left the ice, left the arena, went somewhere dark and lonely and very far away, and for a minute all that remained was an inert lump of flesh crumpled against the boards. And I watched when he came back to that body, watched him try to move his arms a bit, try to get up on sheer instinct for a minute before the trainers and medical staff settled around him like a flock of beneficent vultures and turned him over, tried to ascertain the damage, wrapped him in padding and carried him off, while other players mingled distractedly around him and the commentators tried to define what happened. And over the next few hours, the next day, I heard the low hum rise up around the hockey world:
I should have given up then. I should have realized that I was in over my head, that this is not a place I should be, that this was a usage of the term ‘good’ with which I was not previously familiar and one that I might be better off never understanding. I should have realized that this was not the path for me. I should have turned off the television and gone back to my work and never looked back at that crazy, sexy, icy game.
But I didn’t give up. In fact, I did the exact opposite, I tried to learn about it, I tried to get tougher about these things, I tried to learn to understand why it happens and why people accept it. I wanted to get to the point where I could just shrug my shoulders and say ‘That’s hockey’ when the terrible shit goes down. So far I failed miserably, but I tried to embrace that that was the culture of the game.
Being upset by pain and violence makes me an aberration among both hockey fans and sports fans generally, for most gain an intuitive acceptance of the shape of their games long before they start pondering the resulting ethical questions, but such discomfort is not aberrant in society generally. Modern, liberal culture is based on a sort of utopian idealism that believes that pain and suffering, along with cruelty, injustice, poverty, and suchlike are not necessary parts of life, but evils which can and should be eradicated. In the real world, we tend to think of pain and violence as very serious things that represent very serious problems. Whether the question is one of large scale metaviolence, like war, or small, local forms like muggings, robberies, or child abuse, they are associated with ideologies and ideals and very big questions about the fate of the species. We discuss them passionately but always seriously.
On the other hand, fake pain, destruction, and death are cornerstones of contemporary entertainment, and our responses to them are completely different based on that presumption of simulation and artificiality. As real life gets safer and safer, fictional life gets darker and crueler. A summer blockbuster movie, generally considered one of the fluffiest, silliest kinds of entertainment, is more or less expected to have lots and lots of incidents of people getting hurt- people fighting, people shooting each other, people blowing each other up, and that’s a necessity, not just an occasional bit. In my life I have cheered for countless faux-explosions, simulated decapitations, imitation murders, synthetic fights. Hell, I am personally responsible for an ongoing genocide of CG zombie-villagers, Covenant aliens, Nazi soldiers, and other various and sundry baddies. I’ve beaten simulated hookers to simulated death with simulated lead pipes and taken their simulated money and never once felt even slightly guilty about it, because they were badly rendered and obviously not real.
But entertainment goes to great lengths to show to us that its violence and pain are not the real thing. Like the magician who always proves at the end of the act that his lovely assistant is, in fact, fully intact and has not been cut in half, our entertainment constantly gives us cues that it is not real. We see the actors happy and healthy in their real lives, we get told about all the fabulous computer techniques that allow for the dramatic representation of pain that is not pain and death that is not death, and of course, the game always lets you restart from your last save point. And sometimes we entertain ourselves by looking for the seams- the poorly done green-screen or obvious matt painting- that remind us again of the fraudulence of the entertainment. From our perspective, the perspective of watching, it is the same image whether the pain is real or not, the strewn body parts look pretty much the same whether they’re flesh or latex. But we separate our responses into two different categories based on whether we’ve been told that it’s real- if it’s on the BBC from Baghdad, we frown and regret and maybe weep and wonder about the failure of ourselves as people that we still allow such things to be in the world. But if we’re sitting in a dark auditorium with popcorn and we know that the character actor is still alive and well, we smile and maybe even laugh or cheer or applaud, although the scene itself is no different.
Hockey sits right on that line between entertainment and reality. It is quite possibly the ultimate grey area, maybe even the line itself. On the one hand, it is clearly a form of entertainment, not only because it is just naturally the most entertaining thing ever, but because of the social function it fulfills. It’s something people do for fun, a show of sorts, a spectacle, and event. It is a contrived, in some way almost a staged thing. Outside of the very small subset of people who make their living at it, it is not work, it is not an obligation, and it is not a necessity. It’s a leisure activity, watching hockey, we do it because we want to, not because we have to, and in that regard, it lives in the same realm as movies and television and theater.
However, unlike most other forms of entertainment, hockey is also very, very real. The men on the ice are not characters, and although at times it may seem so dramatic as to be prescripted, it isn’t. And when they get hit, that’s not corn syrup and red food coloring that goes flying everywhere. The issue is not that I cannot deal with violence. It’s that I’m not sure how to reconcile the concept of real violence with entertainment.
I was, once upon a time, very invested in the belief that I am not the sort of person who could ever enjoy something that involved real violence and real human suffering. That’s not really surprising, because a lot of my work involves trying to convince people to care about strange, fragile beauties in faraway cities that, all things being equal, they’d really prefer were bombed to shit. I am very familiar with how destructive people’s indifference to violence that doesn’t directly affect them can be, with the way that pain can fester in people long after wounds have healed, how it can change them, and how it so often has horrifying consequences long after the initial event has passed.
But the fact is that I like violence in hockey. More than like it, I love it. I love body-checking in virtually all its forms, including a lot of the unsafe and marginally dirty ones. I love the strategy of it, but more than that, I love the aesthetic of it, the way it catches and reshapes the play as though someone grabbed the game by its edges and pulled it in a different direction. I love the sound of it, the crisp, rattling thunk against the boards, like a kettle-drum in an all-percussion symphony. I love the collisions and the impacts, the naked physics of it, every hypothesis about the properties of bodies in motion tested again and again, on real live human bodies. And every now and then, I like a fight, especially when it’s packaged with a nice story about honor and passion and hockey’s unique, defiant internal sense of justice.
However, one of the things that very much irritated me when I first came to hockey was an attitude amongst a certain sector of the fan community which I privately dubbed ‘vicarious macho.’ It was quite common early in the last season, when people would frequently lament the fact that the post-lockout NHL seemed to involve considerably less fighting and/or ‘physicality’ than previously, and they would call for more, demand it, saying, the game isn’t tough enough anymore, isn’t exciting enough, isn’t intense enough. And often this would be accompanied by a certain attitude that ‘true hockey fans like us,’ who love fighting and deliberately violent play-styles, are themselves strong, tough, masculine people, whereas anyone who decried or was even a bit disturbed by it was weak, foolish, and effeminate. What bothered me about it was not the pro-fighting stance, it was the appropriation of players’ qualities by observers. Leaving aside the question of whether it is strong, tough, passionate, or whatever to fight, the willingness to watch other people fight while you sit safely behind glass- either the glass of the rink or the glass of a television screen- does not make you tough or strong or, in fact, anything. In fact, the demand that other people engage in violence just so you can be more entertained or feel tougher is pretty disturbing, if not outright vampiric- go on, bitch, bleed for me or get off the ice.
But all watching is a sort of vampirism. It’s all about appropriating the qualities of the game for ourselves. For some people it’s vicarious macho, for others it’s vicarious speed, vicarious anger, vicarious triumph, vicarious courage, vicarious endurance. In some sense being a hockey fan is similar to any other form of the symbolic consumption which is so characteristic of contemporary capitalist society- those qualities which we feel lacking in ourselves we seek in something external. Buying a sexy sportscar to feel young, or a hybrid to feel socially responsible. Getting a tattoo to feel cool. We are all very conscious of what our tastes and our choices say about us, we define other people often by what they like to watch, and define ourselves similarly.
Watching hockey is itself a discipline, something that demands a particular intensity of attention that I sometimes think super-charges this process of identification, the link we believe we have with the thing on the other side of the glass. We get so much from watching. Hockey fans, perhaps because of the speed of the game or perhaps because of its beauty, tend to identify more immediately and viscerally with the game than fans of other sports. We have very little distance from it while watching, it wraps us up and sucks us in and we feel it very strongly, and because of that we develop a strong vicarious attachment to its virtues and vices.
In the end, are my poor attempts at vicarious compassion any more ethical than vicarious macho? Do our feelings and perceptions of these things matter, or is it only the illusion of affinity that makes us thing they do? No matter what we’d like to believe, we are not the things we watch. But they do, I sometimes think, change us. Watching is powerful in ways, it can sensitize you to things, seeing can make you think and feel things that you otherwise wouldn’t. And sometimes it can numb you too, to things you shouldn’t necessarily be numb to.
You can’t unsee things. You can analyze them and process them, you can try to make them something other than what they are, and maybe with enough time you can forget a lot of them, but you can’t just rip them out of your head and throw them in the river. The things you see, all the many millions of things you see, become little tiny parts of you, they form who you are and how you perceive the world, your ideas and your values. You are structured by them. The saving grace is that it’s an interactive process, not a passive one, you have the power to make discernments and judgments about what you see, which is exactly the force that allows us to disagree so very vociferously about the ethical merits of a given play, the fact that though we have all seen the same clip, some can see a good strategic move with unfortunate but unforeseeable consequences where others see headhunting and an obvious intent to harm. But there’s always a limit to the ex-post-facto analysis, because the rush of images and impressions has its own logic, and that’s the logic of sensitivity and numbness. I feel the creeping numbness to real violence when it’s incarnated as hockey violence, and I fear it.
And the really troubling thing is that the solution is easy, there are plenty of further rules and modifications that can be instituted that would make it a safer, cleaner game, and there are plenty of hockey fans who deal with their moral ambiguity by becoming advocates for some new measure that they think will prevent the worst abuses and make hockey more modern, more wholesome, more good. But I can’t bring myself to be one of them. Partly it is that I can’t claim enough knowledge to predict what sort of effect any of the suggested changes might make. Partly it is that I think the game belongs first and foremost to them that plays it, and I would feel out of place calling for something to be imposed on others as an outsider. But more than that, I like it the way it is, even with all the cruelty intact, even with the occasional (or somewhat more than occasional) dirty play or nasty retaliation, with the fighting and the anger and the danger and that curious antiquated sense of honor that is so very inconsistent and so very out of place in contemporary real life. Deep down, I ask myself, would I still be so fascinated by it, so attracted, if it were a safer, nicer sport?
I’ve cheered so many hits that were inches and seconds away from crippling, obviously cheap plays. Somehow I never really expect it to go bad, I forget that they’re real people who can be badly, cruelly broken, I get hockey-fan amnesia once the news coverage of the last incident has past, until it gets repeated- with a change of players and a change of scenery- a few steps down the road, and I’m forced to remember the real nature of what it is I’m watching.
I don’t understand it, what makes hockey players risk so very much, where the consuming desire comes from, when it is after all only a game. Sometimes I find it admirable and sometimes I find it disturbing and I always find it somehow very impressive, but I don’t understand it. I don’t think I ever will.
But what I can try to understand, what I have to understand, is why I so very much want to watch them do all the various things they do in the context of the game. The question is not, not yet anyway, the big question: what is hockey?, but the small, selfish question: what is hockey for me?
During the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs, being a hockey fan was like being a tourist in the land of pain. It was, particularly in the first round, a postseason more remarkable for the quality of its sucker punches, knee checks, elbowings, and head hits than for the quality of its hockey. Most of the series went comparatively quickly, with little doubt as to the eventual outcome after the first couple of games. Most of the anticipation was waiting, nearly every day, to see what sort of suspensions would come down from on high, and listening to the commentators anxiously anticipate what kind of retaliation the next game might bring. The only real star, at first, was Colin Campbell and his Wheel of Justice, and maybe the Legion of Evil Zebras who seem to think that fairness mostly consists of appearing to be biased against everyone in turns. By a few days in I was already tired of it. It seemed to be shaping up to be a season where the hockey gods turned against us and the seconds and inches kept going the wrong way, and I got so fucking tired of blindside hits and head checks and concussions, even when I could manage not to feel guilty or nauseous, it grated on my nerves, like hearing your favorite song played on an out-of-tune piano. People told me again and again that this is the best hockey of the year, the postseason, and I started to think that this means what I’ve suspected all along, that much of what I love in the sport is incidental and the essence of it is, as the saying goes, murder on ice, to do as much damage as you can get away with and fuck the goals, whoever’s got the most regular roster players left standing come June wins.
Look, I know there are lots of sayings about this, sayings and quotations that compare hockey to violent crime and suggest that that resemblance is by far the best thing about the sport, but let’s face it, most of us, most of the time, don’t actually believe that. It’s like those metaphors that liken hockey to war- it’s supposed to be a freakin’ metaphor. If it actually was just like war, we wouldn’t set a time for it and a time limit on it, we wouldn’t have rules for it, we’d probably just give up on the whole pretense of scoring altogether, and we sure as hell wouldn’t be holding so much of it in
It would be easy to write it off as simple human nature, to say that it is an intrinsic part of being human to be attracted to violence, but that’s not good enough. We sometimes liken hockey to latter-day gladiatorial combat, but it’s not. We don’t have gladiatorial combat anymore, that was another practice of another time and we would not tolerate it today. But perhaps there is something dark lingering among us safe, sensible modern people, those of us who live on the other side of the glass, that makes us long for destruction.
X. says, exasperated, you’re overthinking this. It’s a game, people play it because they enjoy it and people watch it because they enjoy it and yeah, people get hurt, but people get hurt all the time. It’s just the way it is. He thinks I’ve lost it, but I think he’s wrong. I don’t think I ever had it, because I just can’t find that simple logic, that simple acceptance. I want someone to come down the street and call up to me and tell me that they’ve found it, that magic rule, that rule so precise and so fine that they can use it as a scalpel to cut out all the ugly and terrifying moments but still leave all the rest of it, including the violence and the drama and the thrill, intact. Where is that rule? Why haven’t they-I-we found it yet? Everyone says it, you hate to see these things happen, it’s sad, it’s unfortunate, but… why haven’t we found the rule that can take away that irritating but and may the whole thing fair and right and intellectually-spiritually-emotionally in line with what they-I-we believe that real life should be?
During the playoffs, of course, all violence is rationalized as the necessary byproduct of the high stakes and the emotional intensity of the postseason. It may have alienated me, but only because I was already alienated by my team’s elimination- for fans who were still invested, the impact of brutal events was mitigated by the story behind them. The classic rationale of the ‘good’ hockey fight- physical game, inflamed passions, shit happens. And then came the Ducks victory, which seemed to provide the ultimate justification for playing a particularly violent brand of hockey (although to be fair I think
But now they’re back. Barely two weeks into the season and there have already been several plays frightening enough to attract wide attention, and all the more so because at this time of year the cruelty is unadorned with a good narrative. If a concussing play in the playoffs seems like the price to pay for the Stanley Cup, a similar act in the preseason, or the 2nd or 3rd game in, seems like a waste and a disappointment. They say now, sometimes, even on TSN, even amongst the arbiters of proper hockey, that eventually, if something doesn’t change, someone is going to get killed. Which is a bit disingenuous, really, because as I understand it some long time ago somebody did get killed, although he had the good manners not to actually die on the ice in front of everyone, and thank God too, because there’s a clip that would get a lot of YouTube play. After that they changed some things, and everyone was very reassured that it would not happen again, but now nobody seems quite so sure of that anymore. They are starting to wonder- I am not the only one- if this sport will actually kill people. But for now it hasn’t, so for now we all just watch, and wait, and see.
I think a lot, these days, about Patrick Eaves and Jason Williams. Not really, I’m not thinking about them. I don’t know them, I barely even know anything about them. They’re not even ‘my guys.’ No, what I think about is the absence of them, those seconds drifting into minutes when they were gone, and I wonder what would have happened if the seconds and inches had lined up a little differently, and they hadn’t come back at all. I wonder what will happen, on that night when all the warnings and ill-omens are finally fulfilled, and someone really goes, goes beyond all light and sound and motion into that big nowhere that’s supposed to be too serious for us to think about in hockey. I wonder what will it will be like on that day when one of them kills another, in front of a screaming crowd, for it seems day by day more inevitable, just a matter of time and bad luck. I wonder who it will be, some star player or 4th line grinder, someone I adore or someone I’ve never even heard of. And I wonder if I’ll be watching. I don’t want to be.
Back in the spring, I could not write this out. I could barely write anything at all. For days I tried and tried, and then eventually I stopped trying. I left too many games half-watched, went out and sat, shivering, on the balcony and watched the moon rise on a cold spring that refused to grow anything, no buds nor blossoms, although the last snow had melted off weeks before. I sat there night after night as the playoffs rolled by and world continued its slow revolutions. The blog languished, unupdated for weeks at a time, and finally began to collapse into a well-earned irrelevance, and still I wrote nothing. Ideas passed through me as they always have, but that was all they were, passing things traveling between far strange places where I have never been.
I was hoping, somehow, that the fall, the beginning of the season would be a reprieve. I was hoping it would be a time for good hockey, lightweight low-key hockey, most everyone healthy or healing, and flush with optimism and a sense of possibility. A time to see all the things about the sport that I love with none of the troubling questions. But it has not been that, for now, again, every time I flip past the sports channels, every time I scan the hockey blogs, there is another ugly clip and another smatter of controversy, the plays the same with only the names changed. A. says, this is the way it is. The rules change and the enforcement varies, but hockey is a game which has always been cruel and dirty around the edges, and it always will be so. He’s right. I cannot change the game, it will be itself irregardless of my opinions. The only choice I have is: do I watch it or not?
I do not understand hockey. It is such a small thing, on the vast scales of time and space, and there are many things more worthy of my- anyone’s- time and effort. So it’s hilarious, in a way, that in these shining sheets of artificial ice, in the hiss of skates and the repetitive chanting of crowds, I should come to face perhaps- certainly- some of the most intractable questions I’ve ever encountered. In this I have become more ensnared by a triviality than any person I’ve yet met, among all those with irrational passions for television shows and trading cards. It’s just a game, X. says, again and again, while I pace back and forth over the creaking floors, and he pleads with me as best he can to put it down in its proper place in the world and save my words and arguments and rants for the things that really matter. But of all the many, many things that I have considered that really matter, none have brought home so instantly and immediately the bare, simple mysteries of being human, in this world at this time. We all wonder, I think, I hope, every single last person on this sad spinning rock, at some point in some way, about the same things, the same questions come back again and again in different shapes but always somehow the same. What is violence, what is beauty, what is desire, what is joy, what is it to have a body with all its urges and a mind with all its contradictory needs, what is free will, what is reason, what is it to live in a society made by other minds and bodies. These questions attack you again and again and you never answer them, you just make your compromises and your negotiations and learn to brace yourself for the next assault, and if you ever dare to think that you’ve figured it all out, sealed up any of those questions with nice, neat answers, rest assured one day among the days something will come along and it will rip them all open again, wounds that never fully heal, until everything you are is just a mass of varied scars.
For most people, that thing that comes will not be hockey. But like as not it will be something equally small, because you learn to expect and prepare for the big stuff, war, sex, love, work, pretty much everything short of death itself. But the little things, they’re ninjas, they creep up on you from behind and catch you off guard, in the soft spots you never thought to protect against the onslaught of the unanswerable questions. Someday it will come, a song on the radio, a beautiful stranger walking across the street, a photo in the newspaper, a long dark stretch of highway, and suddenly you’ll find yourself crying or laughing or screaming. Over what? Over nothing, a triviality, just one meaningless moment in a life full of meaningless moments, except somehow, someway, it points to a question you can’t answer, however desperately you need to. Hockey keeps giving me those sorts of moments- unsought, unexpected, and unprepared for.
Let’s go back to that bar.
So I say, look, I know I’m attracted to violence, but I have a library of kung fu movies and first-person shooters for that, good and reasonable fantasy outlets. I never thought I was the sort of person who would be so enthusiastic about, so in love with something that involves intrinsically, fundamentally, real violence against real people, real bodies being really broken. I cannot be that, that’s wrong, that goes against everything I thought I’d spent my not-very-long-life struggling to become. That can’t be who I am. This is supposed to be a fucking sport, this is supposed to be my fucking entertainment. It’s not like there isn’t already enough pain and damage in the wide world without adding more just for fun.
And you say…