Friday, March 28, 2008

Stardom/Ethics/Conventions

On March 22, 2008, in a QMJHL playoff game between the Quebec Remparts and the Chicoutimi Sangueens, Remparts goaltender Jonathan Roy attacked opposing goaltender Bobby Nadeau. In the broad strokes, this is not a particularly unusual or remarkable occurrence in Canadian junior hockey. The context- an ice-wide brawl featuring both teams, at the instigation of the Remparts, who were losing 7-1- is precisely the sort of context in which goalie fights most commonly take place. It is a tribute, then, to the peculiar viciousness of J. Roy’s behavior that this incident set off a massive controversy not only in Quebec, but throughout the hockey world. Given that Nadeau sustained no major injuries, it is almost unheard of that ordinary hockey fans should be so disturbed or outraged by anything that takes place in a junior hockey fight.

Or perhaps the anger is more yet of a tribute to the ongoing fascination with a one Patrick Roy, the former NHL goaltender who remains simultaneously one of the most idolized and most vilified of players in the game’s history, and who just happens to be both the coach of the Remparts and the father of J. Roy. It is, in fact, a perfect storm for hockey controversy, pulling in dozens of debatable elements: the place of fighting, the culture of junior hockey, the ambiguity of rules and inconsistency of punishments, the cult of personality surrounding a former superstar, the dynamics of hockey families, the relationship between violence and emotion, the comparative worth of on-ice achievements versus off-ice behaviors. This incident is a godsend for hockey writers and pundits, enough material for a months’ worth of columns at the very least.

For the most part, the coverage has fallen into two camps: those discussing the ethics of J. Roy’s action and the punishment it deserves, and those that focus on P. Roy’s involvement and what it means to his legacy. The first view supposes that this is the kind of incident that could, hypothetically, have happened on any rink featuring any team, and considers it as an occasion to try to define, affirm, or challenge the social mores of junior hockey. The second, however, considers that P. Roy’s presence and his responsibility or lack thereof is the primary element of interest- without him, it’s just another lamentable incident in a sport rife with lamentable incidents.

What I want to suggest is that there is actually a significant link between the two. The son’s behavior and the father’s legacy are not two disparate elements which just, coincidentally, happen to have converged at a particular moment, but are deeply related. One of the central questions in this story is whether P. Roy, from the bench, instigated J. Roy’s action. Video evidence seems to suggest that he did, while the elder Roy himself denies it and claims his gestures were misunderstood. Whether or not he intended specifically to tell his son to attack Nadeau at that moment, however, the persona the elder Roy has constructed for himself over the years (both as a player and as a coach) is one that recurrently challenges and destabilizes hockey’s conventions. It has a romantic side, that of someone so fiercely iconoclastic that he makes his own rules, but it also has a troubling side which helps to ensure that behaviors like his son’s will always be a perennial part of the sport, no matter how widely condemned or harshly punished.

Within Montreal, this incident has opened a debate as to whether or not the Canadiens should use their sole jersey retirement planned for the centennial year (2008-2009) to retire Roy’s 33. Some believe that, as arguably (and that adverb is always inserted) the greatest goaltender of all time, his number must be retired regardless of anything else he has done. Others believe that his actions over the years, the many incidents that showed him to be a bad teammate and quite possibly a bad person, have debased him to the point that not even his records and Stanley Cups can compensate.

There is no doubt that many of Roy’s behaviors, in a lesser player, would have put him beyond the pale of acceptability. With average NHL talent and the same attitude, he would have been written off as more trouble than he was worth before his career even got started, just another incidental case study for people to mention when rattling off a list of the eccentric and obnoxious folk who take up goaltending.

But Roy represents, in one bundle, the fundamental injustice of the hockey hierarchy: there are no rules for stars. Most stars, of course, don’t test this precept too frequently. They’ll have a few incidents of egregious greed, selfishness, cruelty, or arrogance for which they’ll use up some of the good karma built up by their various other heroics, but for the most part star players do their bit to hold up the nominal values of the sport- modesty, teamwork, stoicism, a principled approach to violence, a docile deference to superiors. All those things that make hockey stars the most dull yet charmingly wholesome of elite professional athletes. We idolize them and in turn they do their best to behave like people worth idolizing.

Roy, however, tests the limits of our idolatry, forces us to question exactly how much we’re willing to forgive a man because he was an excellent-beyond-excellence player. Arrogant and self-righteous, he’s done pretty much everything hockey players aren’t supposed to do. In fact, his approach to on-ice violence might be the most conventional thing about him, and even in that he was near the outer boundaries of what was acceptable and common for goaltenders. But it’s his other behaviors- the recurring physical attacks and threats against people in both his hockey life and his personal life, the willful defiance of authority, and (from the perspective of many Canadiens’ fans, anyway) his willingness to undermine the team to serve his own ego- that would have ruined a less talented player. Yet for the most part, because of his abilities, most of these actions are elided under euphemisms like ‘competitive’ and ‘passionate’, rather than being identified as pathological.

Now, in the case of J. Roy, most hockey fans would readily agree, based on the clip alone that his action was unethical. He skated to the other end of the ice to attack an unwilling opponent, ripping off Nadeau’s mask and pummeling him to the ice. What’s more, he gloated afterwards, skating away giving the finger to the Chicoutimi crowd. Colby Cosh, in a piece for the National Post, efficiently summarizes the common hockey fan attitude towards this kind of action- that it violates the sport’s ‘code’, the unwritten but customary rules that govern on-ice violence. For most hockey fans, this is how we can sleep at night, by believing that the game does have its own moral values, and although they may be different from those of normal society, they are no less deeply held or closely followed. Hockey virtue may be different from general virtue, but it is still virtue.

But it’s never about the clip alone. It’s about the names on the back of the jerseys in the clip and what they tell us. One need look no further than the suspensions given to Chris Simon (a goon) and Chris Pronger (a star) earlier this season for virtually identical incidents of stomping their skate down on a prone opponent’s leg. The former got 30 games, the latter, 8. The differential treatment for stars, differential treatment based on roles, is exactly what prevents hockey from developing a fully consistent ethical system. There’s always a loophole for the talented and useful, and as long as that loophole exists, the kind of consensus position on what’s ‘not hockey’ is never going to be as clear as Cosh would like it to be. And even if the official system tries to come down equally on all offenders, the differential love of fans will maintain the imbalance. It’s not merely that we allow star players to behave unethically, it’s that we try to extend the bounds of ethics to accommodate them. We make excuses for them. Apologies. Justifications. We try to make out like they’re behavior wasn’t wrong, or if it was wrong, was excusable because of self-defense or the heat of passion or any of the other excuses we draw by analogy from the criminal justice system. It’s a mercy that most of them don’t force us to make these accommodations very often, because it’s these accommodations that make our standards amorphous and inconsistent. In the argument in favor of the Canadiens honoring Roy, it is clear just how far these excuses can go. He flouted a great many of the conventions of ‘good behavior’ that hockey has constructed, at some point or another, but it’s not only his ears that are plugged against criticism by his Stanley Cup rings- it’s those of most of the hockey world.

The younger Roy knows as well as anyone the mutability of even deeply held ideas about honor and right action held by most hockey fans. He is not a star, of course, and therefore is not personally privy to the exemption, but his father is, and if his father supports his behavior, than he had no reason to believe there would be any real consequences. When, exactly, have there ever been any significant consequences for any of P. Roy’s misbehaviors? And if the standards only apply to some players but not all, what kind of standards are they, and why should J. Roy bother to restrain his own impulses in deference to them?

I don’t want to see the Canadiens to retire 33. Yes, his achievements were great, and yes, he did much for the franchise. But he’s also harmed it, he’s harmed a lot of those misfortunate enough to get on his bad side. Retiring numbers isn’t about they player, it’s about the team. As Mike Boone points out, the Hall of Fame is the recognizing agency for pure hockey achievement. But a jersey retirement is not a tribute that a team owes every player who rises beyond a certain status, it’s one of the means by which the club defines itself, its character as a trans-historical entity. The banners hanging from the roof of the Bell Center are not a history lesson; there is no requirement that they be a comprehensive list of everyone who has ever done meaningful things for the franchise. Rather, they’re a list of the players the team wants to claim as part of a kind of transcendent roster, the guys who define different elements of what it is to be a Hab. By not retiring Roy now, they don’t close off the possibility of retiring him someday. It leaves the question an open debate, one of the many should-he-or-shouldn’t-he arguments that go along with giving a player any honor. But once he’s up there, the team is bound to him in perpetuity. He becomes part of their ongoing present, looming over every game. Given his behavior over the last few years, and the likelihood that it will continue as he ages, do the Canadiens want that? Are they willing to hang a name alongside Richard, Beliveau, Dryden, and Gainey which continually behaves in the fashion Roy does, and which reminds people as much of the ugliness of the sport as the beauty? To do so might be a courageous service to the truth, both of Canadiens history and the morally ambivalent nature of hockey, but it hardly fits in with the team’s preferred mythology.

There is an implicit agreement in the hockey world about the proper behavior of ex-players, particularly those of star status. Many of them did things over the course of their playing careers which were wrong- Richard famously had his share of violent confrontations within games, for example. We forgive them these incidents, if their contributions were otherwise meaningful to us, because we understand that in the throes of a hockey game right and wrong are not always so easy to discern. In exchange, however, once their on-ice lives are behind them, they either retire into a dignified, quiet private life or take up elder statesmen roles. They soften. They do charity work, give nostalgic interviews, show up at commemorative banquets in nice suits with trim graying hair and wire-frame glasses. Maybe they do some general managing or coaching, adopting the calmer persona necessary for roles that involve more diplomacy than overt confrontation. But in whatever way, they behave such that everyone can tacitly put aside whatever mistakes they may have made and view them as figures worthy of the respect and admiration we have for their achievements. They play venerable legend. We play adoring public. It works.

Roy, on the other hand, continues to play enraged nutcase, occasional archvillain, and general gadfly with much apparent satisfaction, and is happy to use his star status as a stage on which to perform that role. Once again, he defies the conventions. He breaks the rules. In doing so, however, I would argue that he’s forfeited any expectation that we- the fans, or the Canadiens franchise- should play by them. He’s exercising his prerogative to create his own legacy, and more power to him if that’s what he really wants. But the bleak legacy he’s created, and continues to darken with every passing season, just isn’t one worth honoring.

3 comments:

Doogie said...

Depending on where it goes from here, I could see his number being retired during, say, the 150th anniversary celebration when he's in a wheelchair and can't charge across the ice and try to beat the shit out of 95-year-old Mike Vernon. It really depends on how his life plays out from here. But much as I was a supporter of his until recently, I don't think I could support his jersey being retired in Montreal in good conscience. I mean, Colorado is one thing. They retired Ray Bourque for two friggin' years! But Montreal is a team that took several decades years to retire the likes of Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, and Boom-Boom Geoffrion. They take their time, they respect the traditions, they do it right. I liked the idea of retiring Toe Blake. How did he get forgotten with the rest of the 50s dynasty when they were retired in the mid-90s?

(Yes, I realize I've completely avoided the question of Roy the Younger's actions, but I don't know what there is to say, really: it was vile thuggery, but it's also the sort thing that's been happening for as long as there's been organized hockey, period, never mind junior hockey. Until the culture of the sport changes, I'm not seeing much changing in that regard, though Pierre LeBrun had an excellent article the other day that asked whether our tolerance for violence, as a "polite" society, has changed. Sort of along the same lines as the question Tom Benjamin asked about where our shouting, heckling, energetic behaviour went.)

E said...

maybe he won't beat the shit out of anyone, but remember: spitting and shrieking profanity are options for even the most decrepit, wheelchair-bound senior citizen. and, as we've learned, he can always have his son do the attacking.

i read the lebrun article too. it's a very interesting argument, and one i think is probably going to prove accurate. hockey will likely eventually have to bow to the mores of the rest of modern culture. i'm not sure i think it's right- i'm a big fan of the sport's willful anachronism- but it may well be inevitable.

Doogie said...

i'm a big fan of the sport's willful anachronism

You should've seen it when all they had was organ music. Thirty-five angry farm boys and blue-collar kids in wool sweaters engaged in a barroom brawl, accompanied by the almost comically reverent tones of an old-fashioned church organ. It's like setting a NASCAR race to "Feelin' Groovy" by Simon and Garfunkel.