Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Where the NHL is concerned, I’m pro-violence. I didn’t come to this stance easily and I don’t take it lightly, and I’d let it go if a strong majority of players come to the point where they don’t want it anymore, but so long as them-who-play find it meaningful and worthwhile for them, I think it makes the game better. More strategically interesting, more viscerally engaging, more socially useful. Violence raises the stakes and deepens the questions and slathers the whole thing in an extra layer of drama, all of which are to the good. Plus, I would like to fight somebody someday and hockey is probably the only way that’s ever going to happen.

That said, hits to the head are one of those things that have to go. Hockey evolved in a time when knowledge of neurobiology was rudimentary (hell, knowledge of all biology was pretty rudimentary) but now, knowing what we do about the long-term intellectual and emotional consequences of brain injuries, the game has to change. It’s one thing to ask players to sacrifice their bones and tendons; a wholly different one to ask them to sacrifice their happiness, their memories, or their sanity- possibly for the rest of their lives.

So, for the record, as a card-carrying (it’s a Saku Koivu rookie card!), four-jersey-owning, RDS-watching Habs fan, I think that three games for Pacioretty is perfectly acceptable. No, it didn’t result in a concussion, but breaking the man’s nose isn’t nothing and it was clearly a whack to the head and those can’t be allowed to stand. In fairness, I think the Habs fan base as a collective has been pretty rational about this, in that I haven’t read many of my comrades who think he should have gotten off with nothing, but there is a lot of anger at the inconsistency which seems somewhat misplaced. No, Shanahan’s rulings have not been perfectly consistent, but the time to give him shit for that is on the calls that are wrong, not the ones that are right. Complaining that Pacioretty should have gotten off with less because Shanahan has wrongly let others off with less is ass-backwards. It sounds an awful lot like saying you’d rather have a sheriff who is consistently wrong than one who is sometimes, but not always, right.

However, I do think the hit brings up a problem that needs more consideration, which is how much responsibility Letang bears for putting himself in that position. Everyone has watched the clip a billion times and people still disagree about what exactly happened (my God, what does that say about the unreliability of hockey vision?), but to my eyes it looks rather as though Letang saw Pacioretty coming and decided to take the shot anyway, despite the fact that taking the shot put his head at shoulder height. It seems fairly obvious to me that Letang put himself in a dangerous position.

Does a player have a responsibility to keep himself out of danger? This is a recurring debate in contemporary officiating, one that seems to become more and more contentious in recent seasons. Once upon a time, hockey ethics sided overwhelmingly with the hitter over the hittee. I can remember in the early period of my own hockey-life (this would be back in the good old days of 2006) hearing announcers go into fits of giddy elation when a guy got ‘destroyed’ or ‘had his bell rung’. Pointing out that a player seemed slow to get up or unsteady after being leveled was not an expression of concern, it was a statement of admiration at the awesomeness of the hit.

That has changed dramatically in only a few short years. Concern about concussions has gone from being a preoccupation of a pansy-assed few to a League-wide concern, and I would argue it was heading that way even before Crosby. It’s a credit to the hockey world how quickly most players, coaches, analysts, and commentators have modified their attitude towards head hits in response to the medical evidence. There is a tremendous sea-change happening in ‘conventional’ hockey ethics, but nothing happens instantly. In Shanahan’s defense, then, it is an inherently challenging moment to be in charge of determining what is legal and illegal. He has to recognize the direction the sport is going while at the same time acknowledging what it has been for so long, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to find that balance perfectly in three months’ time.

So far, Shanahan has been trying to balance responsibility for the danger of the hit between the hitter and the hittee, saying that both bear some responsibility for the outcome. Pacioretty shouldn’t have hit his head, but neither should Letang put his head in a position to be hit. It sounds like a good compromise position.

But it’s not. There can not be any expectation, from an official standpoint, that hockey players try to keep themselves out of dangerous positions, and here is why: at the NHL level, ‘protecting yourself’ is not a part of hockey. You cannot tell players to put their own safety ahead of the strategic calculus. That’s not how this game works. If you are a professional player, you take the hit in order to make the play, period. That is not just your job, it’s who you are. It has to be, or you cannot possibly play the game well.

Any skater who goes through his shifts thinking about keeping himself safe is going to be useless against an aggressive team, and a team that thinks that way is going to get its ass kicked from Boston to Philadelphia and back again. There are plenty of teams and players whose strategy is to pressure the opposition into dangerous situations and see if they flinch- in fact, every team and nearly every player has probably made use of that tactic. Sometimes guys do flinch, even without wanting to, but that’s not something you want them to do, and it’s sure as hell not something you can command them to do. It’s tantamount to telling players they have a duty to be intimidated. That’s not a hockey value.

Saying that Letang shouldn’t have taken that shot in order to protect his head is contrary to fundamental principles of hockey ethics and strategy. Forced to choose between making a weak play unscathed and getting burned on a good decision, a player needs to choose the latter, always. Doesn’t matter if it’s taking a shot in the middle of the ice or racing into the boards for a loose puck, the first obligation is to help your team win.

Responsibility for hits lies exclusively with the hitter. In fact, I’ll go further than that and throw out this idea: the severity of supplementary discipline on hits to the head should be based more or less completely on the level of injury inflicted. No more blaming the victim for doing exactly what he’s supposed to do, and absolutely no more hand-wringing about intent. You know what? Fuck intent. Intent does not matter. The concept should not even be a part of the system of hockey justice.

Number one: We cannot know intent. It exists only in the mind of the player, and as such only he can ever truly know what he did or did not intend. Moreover, I’m not sure hockey players in the course of a game ever form what we non-skating humans would consider ‘intent’. They operate primarily on discipline, training, and a flickering strategic sense that doesn’t leave much room for critical thinking between the impulse to do something and the doing of it.

Number two: Conversations about intent are inevitably moralistic in tone. Talking about intent is a way of drawing a halo or horns on a player, of trying to separate the character of the man from his actions. But we shouldn't be concerned with character at all, only behavior. A hit is not suddenly ‘better’ if the guy didn’t mean it, nor worse if he did. The hit is the hit, and it’s goodness or badness derives from what it does, not what it was meant to do.

Number three: Concern about intent just protects recklessness, and the condoning of reckless behavior is part of how NHL discipline got to be the mess was under the Campbell regime. I am perfectly convinced that very few players do anything with an intent to injure anymore, but there are many players who do everything without caring whether it might cause injury. There’s a certain class of guys- Colby Armstrong used to be my favorite example of this, but I haven’t watched him in a couple of years so maybe he’s changed- who throw themselves into hits at tremendous speed with very little control whatsoever, limbs flying every which way, with no particular concern for what body parts their using to make contact, nor what body parts their making contact with. Some coaches like that kind of play. They encourage it, because the damage it does is often considered less serious because it wasn’t intentional.

So intent is a waste of time. What matters is discipline. Hockey is a violent game but it is, and always has been, and always must be, a disciplined violence. Ever since the very beginning of the thing, we’ve dividing violence into legal and illegal categories, and every player who plays the game today has- for the most part- internalized those categories. For example they know that, no matter how strategically useful it might be, no matter how angry you are, you don’t two-hand your opponents across the neck with your stick. They didn’t think of this on their own, they didn’t decide not to do it because they’re such nice guys. It was trained into them, and trained so well that it wouldn’t even occur to them that that was an option. It’s an embodied ethics, and it can be quite sophisticated. NHL players are capable of taking very specific, precise rules and internalizing them to the point of instinct, which is why most of them can throw dozens of hits a year with hardly any kneeing, roughing, cross-checking, slew-footing, clipping, boarding, charging, elbowing, and whatever else. An untrained person- or a hockey player in an earlier age- would do all those things repeatedly in the course of trying to hit people on skates, but the pros mostly don't, because they are professionals. It’s what they do. They play a game according to rules. It’s not burdensome or unreasonable to ask them to add one more variation to the 843 rules of hitting they’ve already had to learn. It may take them some time to perfect the discipline, but they can and should do it.

Which is why we come back the responsibility being on the hitter. Every player who’s coming up on an opponent in a potentially vulnerable position knows there is a danger there. The responsibility lies with him to either make the hit (relatively) safely or not make it at all. If he can make the hit clean, more power to him. If he makes it illegally but with no ill effects for his opponent, well, that’s why God made power plays. But if he does something illegal and it results in significant damage? We shouldn’t give a shit what he intended, throw the book at him.

Players need to know that if they concuss someone, they’re going to miss a whole whack of games, just like they know if they draw blood on a high-stick, they’re going to get four minutes in the box. Guys who hit well will keep thwacking along their merry way, guys who hit stupidly/malevolently will sit, and coaches will have an incentive to start inculcating more disciplined hitting. Win/win/win.


Anonymous said...

A round of applause for making sense, OLE

Anonymous said...

This is an incredibly intelligent post. Very convincing. Fantastically argued.

The one concern I have after reading is that luck just plays too big a role here. Also, many times players will have absolutely no control -- the downside of onus completely on hitter. When onus is split no one is blaming victim, its just with the way the events unfolded you can't completely blame the attacker. After all, it is a violent and dangerous game...

E said...

see, i think part of the problem is that it's very difficult to tell bad luck/accident from deliberate/reckless. we all know that players sometimes fake victimization to get a call, conversely i think many of them fake accident to avoid one. fine, for the most part, but in the case of head injuries it creates a lot of wiggle room for reckless dudes to keep doing as they do.

the other thing (and i didn't emphasize this enough) is that my suggested system would still recognize a difference between legal hits that make contact with the head and hits to the head specifically. if you concuss someone on a full-body, legal hit, that wouldn't necessitate supplemental discipline- only if you whack the head primarily.

this is one of those things where i'd like to see it instituted for a few seasons and see how it plays out, because i hypothesize that we'd find players more capable of restraining their brain-injurious actions than we've given them credit for, once it's clear that the injuriousness itself is what will draw the punishment, without any question of intent. but that can't be either proven or disproven until somehow implemented.