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
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.
There is no doubt that many of
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
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
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
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.