Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On Violence (Part 1- Ambivalence/Education)

Wherein the author alienates the audience

There is a good reason that the parenthetical (Part 1) is appended to this post. It is, comparative to its siblings, highly fragmentary. It is part of a very, very long series-to-be and as such, lacks a proper conclusion or a definitive position. Violence is one of the first topics I began writing about and one of those I am most reluctant to post about- it is both an intricate subject and a tender one, something that is provocative no matter how it is discussed. My inclination is to avoid provocative topics, not because they generate controversy, but because the controversy is so often circular and redundant. Any conversation about violence in hockey on any level will inevitably elicit deeply emotional responses, ranging from the self-righteous to the defensive, and on a personal level I am generally inept at engaging in a sustained way with such emotions. It’s tiring, and confusing, and stressful. So since the original fighting post, which in retrospect reflects so much my own ignorance of the game at the time it was written, I’ve kept most of my thoughts on violence to myself.

I thought I would wait to address violence until I could put forth a coherent position on it, make a sustained argument not just about what it is, but what it should be. The longer I’m around hockey, though, the more I realize that such a day might never come, and in the meantime it’s become a bit of a log-jam on my other topics. There is a natural order in which things must be discussed, and before I can get to some of my other pieces- about intimidation, nationalism, performance, and gender particularly- I must first put forth some tentative attempts towards the understanding of violence. I suppose what I am asking for is some charity on the reader’s part. If you’re reading this, I know, without a doubt, that you have some intense feelings on the subject that may well differ from my own. That’s good and healthy, and I am genuinely interested to hear what they are. But understand that I am not a force for anything in the hockey world. Nothing that I (or you) write here is going to have any real effect on the practice of hockey-violence, so if you have a particularly strong position and a desire to express it venemously, I’d thank you to direct your attention towards Gary Bettman, not me.


Violence is pervasive in hockey, but, other than the lukewarm debate over fighting-as-it-was vs. fighting-as-it-is, it is strangely peripheral to hockey discourse. The new uniforms, the schedule, and Rory Fitzpatrick are all subjects of more intense, prolonged, and multi-colored conversation and debate than violence. This is peculiar to me, because as I mentioned, violence is among the most foundational elements of hockey. It sits right next to the beating, bleeding heart of the sport. Moreover, it sits equally close to the core of who we are as people, we-who-love-hockey, participants and viewers alike.

One of the things that is most striking about the discussion of hockey violence, more than the violence itself, is molasses-thick coating of ambivalence that envelops it. It is self-evident that all hockey fans are attracted to violence at some level or another. If we were, any of us, repelled by it we simply wouldn’t be able to watch the sport at all. Even the cleanest game, even with fighting and all dirty or illegal play subtracted, is often a brutal thing, often the most frightening injuries are the result of ‘accidents’- unfortunate collisions with pucks and sticks and other players- rather than the result of deliberate attempts to harm. The word ‘accident’ has to be put in quotes though, for how honestly can we say that anything is accidental when it happens so routinely? An accident ceases to be an accident when it is anticipated, and even expected. Still, it is comforting to us to dismiss this particular category of violence as more or less irrelevant- unpreventable, unregulatable, and therefore natural and not worth discussing.

But with regards to the deliberate violence of the game, the ambivalence is more pronounced, and nowhere is it more obvious than the ‘debate’ over fighting. It isn’t, actually, much of a debate. The overwhelming majority of existing hockey fans in North America support fighting. As far as I can tell, there is no systematic movement to ban fighting from the sport, although such a movement is often invoked as ‘the opposition’ in pro-fighting editorials. Certainly there are some who feel that the permissibility of fighting diminishes hockey in some way, but they seem to me to be neither organized nor powerful, mere isolated voices stating their position, and generally being drowned out. If anything, the debate is more between those who are fine with fighting the way it is now and those who harbor nostalgia for the more fighting-intensive NHL of yesteryear.

What interests me is not the argument between pro-fighting people and anti-fighting people, but rather the argument that pro-fighting people have within themselves, as an example of the contradictions that inhere in any discussion of hockey violence. There is, in fact, absolutely no agreement about what fighting in the NHL is or should be, who should do it and when, the reasons for it or the consequences of it. There are those who believe that fighting is theater, that it is and should be the province of players who are trained or suited for the purpose, and undertaken for the entertainment of the audience. There are those who believe that fighting is a matter of honor and should be undertaken by any and every player, at such time as his team is threatened or offended against. There are those who believe that fighting is a safety-valve for adrenaline and white-hot anger. There are those who believe it is a strategy to change the momentum of a game or intimidate the opposition. There are those who believe it exists to protect some, and those who believe it exists to destroy others. As long as the question is framed as “Fighting: Yes or No?” all of these people appear to be in absolute agreement, a solid majority consensus. But scratch the surface, ask a more specific question about the why and when and how and who, and the consensus, mist-like, evaporates.

As much as many hockey-people are quick to declare their love of the violence, and even, on occasion, proudly lay claim to bloodlust, violence is never justified as an end in and of itself. Amongst all the many, many articles I have read that discuss some aspect of violence in hockey, I have yet to hear someone claim that violence should be kept in hockey because violence itself is good. It is always rationalized by reference to some external goal, such as: Violence is necessary to protect star players. Violence of one kind (fighting) is necessary to prevent violence of a worse kind (stick-thwacking). Violence is necessary to attract an audience and solve the attendance problems. Violence is necessary to express passion for the game or loyalty to the team. Violence is necessary to good strategy. Violence is necessary because it gives us good stories, makes players into warriors. The sum total of all of this is that the hockey community is constantly apologizing for its love of violence at the same time it declares that love. We are fascinated by and attracted to violence, but we’re sorry about that, and maybe a little bit ashamed of it, and we need to defend it by reference to some larger good.

Perhaps this ambivalence is the reason that no story about hockey violence seems to gain much traction in larger hockey discourse. They come up, of course, all the time, because violence is happening all the time. Periodically there will be a particularly nasty fight, or a severe injury from a ‘clean’ hit, or an egregious attack on a popular player, and the story will cause a flurry of debate, but it passes away as quickly as it appears. The integrity of All-Star voting, an obviously ridiculous issue, gets more serious attention from the hockey community than any of the violence of the sport. Stories about violence are the flotsam of the hockey world, drifting around on invisible currents, until one of them washes up on our particular shores.


This article in the Globe and Mail , linked off Kukla's Korner a few days ago, is a particularly interesting bit of driftwood. It concerns the practice of ‘locker boxing’ wherein hockey players, generally teenagers and of both genders, get together in the locker room before or after a game and attempt to beat each other into unconsciousness. What is intriguing about this story is the level of outrage, mystification, and righteous indignation displayed by both the journalist and the various coaches, doctors, and parents quoted. I might expect that sort of response from Americans, since the game is less well known in America, but this is a Canadian discourse, and from what I can tell Canadians pride themselves on the idea that their version of hockey and their players are more violent (or to use the approved euphemism, ‘physical’), than those found in other lands. Perhaps the shock value has to do with the fact that this involves children, and even more than that, sometimes female children, and most North Americans tend to believe that violence is the province of adult males, from which women and children should be protected. What is shocking, then, is not so much the practice of recreational beating-the-crap-out-of-each-other, but rather the idea of women and/or children recreationally beating the crap out of each other.

The non-hockey fan response to this kind of story, which is very much in evidence in the comments section that follows the article, is to say that hockey is a sadistic sport that attracts sadistic personalities. Most hockey fans can’t believe this, because we see beauty and drama in hockey alongside the violence, and moreover because we’ve seen all those cute little Timbits kids who want to play so very very much, and we can’t really bring ourselves to believe that they’re motivated by sadism.

But even though we know that violence in hockey is real and habitual, we always strive discursively to convince ourselves that it isn’t, and therefore we blind ourselves to certain dimensions of what real, habitual violence is. We all know that, all season long, there are going to be broken bones and concussions and possibly worse, and we find that danger, the risk, the probability of significant violence in any given game highly appealing, but at the same time we try to convince ourselves that it isn’t really essential to the sport- that if and when it happens, it will occur in a moral context, it will be meaningful, it will be undertaken by consenting adults who understand the risks and have freely chosen to participate, and therefore it is not mere sadism on their part nor bloodlust on ours. We believe in the symbolism of hockey violence, but we forget that the symbolic value does not in fact make violence into theater. It is still real.

Given the pervasiveness of violence in hockey, the behavior of these children is not only understandable but highly rational. Think, if you will, of your team, whichever one you know best. Think for a minute about those men specifically, what they look like. Think about the missing teeth and crooked noses and scars. Think about the number of times you’ve seen them being helped or carried off the ice. Think about the number of times you’ve seen their blood- if you’re an attentive fan, it’s probably more times than you’ve seen your own.

Every one of those injuries was real pain, the result of real violence, violence that they’ve accepted as part of their job. We’re apt to believe that they are tougher than us, because they’ve endured so much, and by the time you see them as they are now, that is almost certainly true. But at some point, back in the day, they weren’t tougher than us. They were children, once, the same way that we were. They were those tiny little Timbits kids, without scars, without pins in their knees, and were justly compensated for every missing tooth with quarters under their pillows. There was a time when they cried and cried over a scraped knee or a jammed finger, the way we all did. There was a time when they were human, and their pain was real and meaningless, just like ours. Somewhere in life, though, they started down a different path from the rest of us, the path of serious hockey, and that means they actively chose, among other things, to professionally engage in violence, and most of them were probably barely pubescent when they made this choice.

How does the transition happen? How do you go from being a more or less ordinary child screaming over every bruise to being an adult man who can get your face sliced open with a sharp object and come back to the game as soon as the stitches are in? To do violence to other human beings, and to be the victim of violence, are necessary skills of hockey, as essential to success in the sport as skating, and every aspiring hockey player in Canada must realize this on some level. They must learn to hurt and be hurt, and they will be judged as players and a people based on the way that they do both.

But violence is frightening, pain is frightening, and while it might be easy to hit someone when you’re enraged, in hockey you have to learn to hit people all the time- you have to learn a strategy of hitting people within the game, and you have to learn to fight when called to do so, even if your tired or indifferent or terrified. At some point, you have to learn not to run from a big hit, even at the risk of a concussion, and you have to learn to fight even people you like and don’t actually want to harm. You have to learn to play with dizziness and exhaustion and a broken jaw.

How do you learn that? How does that cute 10-year-old learn a discipline of violence? Do you just wait for it to happen in games, assured that it will eventually? Maybe, but that’s a doubtful strategy for an ambitious player- you don’t know how you’ll react in the moment when violence first confronts you, but you will be judged by your teammates, your coaches, your parents, and your community based on your reaction. You have to know what you will do, find the right balance of brutality and passion and restraint for the situation.

These darari, beating each other in locker rooms and hotels, are learning things that are essential to hockey. They are learning what it feels like when someone else’s cartilage crumbles under your knuckles. They are learning which kind of blows draw blood and which don’t. They are learning what concussions feel like. They are learning what it is to fall to the ground, feeling your consciousness slip away, and what it feels like when it creeps back into your muscles later. And they are learning not to cry, not to scream, and not to talk about it. Which is, more or less, what we expect of professional hockey players.

Someday we will see some of them on CBC at 7 on Saturday, and we will see them take a puck to the face and spit blood on the ice and come back in the next period with a goal and an assist, and we’ll say, what a tough kid, what a good player. We’ll think about the skill and the training and the practice that it took to perfect that particular goal-scoring move, but we won’t think much about the skill of playing-while-broken, and where he practiced that.

Because then we’d have to think about what it really means, this skeletal structure of violence that gives hockey so much of it’s shape, and what that does to people- to the guys, and girls, on the ice, and the rest of us in the stands.


Olivier said...

Interesting point. Off the top of my head, two notes:

-There is a strategic dimension to hockey violence that just cannot be blended in with the rest, that oversee the rest (protecting, agressing, etc...). Good teams are good because they run up the goalie, clog the neutral zone or do whatever that is that the current application of hockey rules allow them to do. It is true for teams, it is true for players. Kovalev and Koivu, graceful players that hey are, keep getting hooking penalties because it used to give them an edge and they never quite shook the habit since the application of the rule was hardened. Delinquency is a skill that every player must possess to some extent. That leads me to my second point:

-The hockey Rule(s) of law(s). Law in hockey isn't an overarching, coherent system. It's some multi-layered, deeply antagonistic configuration of powers built upon their own rule. Hooking is a problem, but will GM, whose teams are build around that acquired skill, accept a more stringent application of the rule? Consistency in refereeing is a problem, but are the governors of the league ready to see their league take a beating because it's all power-play all the time because up to then delinquency was an essential skill? There is a hierarchy in that league, that has its say in the way violence is allowed in the sport in general. If "they" say it's ok, it is.

I guess we lack a clear understanding of who, what class of people have, today, that kind of collective power in hockey, and I certainly don't trust sports journalists to help me on that point.

I think they really are trying to steer the game away from its more violent aspect. And here I include that "what a tough kid" mentality that gives us a 33 years old Peter Forsberg who is only a shadow of the player he was. I could also cite Richard Zednik, but hey, who cares about some 25 goal scorer, right? Anyway, money talks, and with the kind of money today's clubs are needing to run, I think we will see less and less Lindroses. It just doesn't make sense. And it *will* have a trickle down effect. It just takes a long time to change.

Julian said...

A real quick history bite E : The "play through the pain" mentality in hockey probably comes from the fact that the early incarnation of the game didn't allow for substitutions for whatever reason, so players were encouraged to stay on the ice just ensure their team didn't play a man down.

Anonymous said...

Lockerboxing, or whatever they want to call it, may look like it has something to do with hockey fights when you only look at it in hockey. Step outside of it and see some form of it in every single sport young boys play, you realize it has zero to do with hockey or hockey fights or hockey violence. I don't want to use a phrase like "boys will be boys", but it's partially true. That and every sport encouraging them to "be tough".

Along those lines... since when does hockey violence = fighting? Stick swinging, dirty checks, cheap shots, etc. are all violent and none have to do with fighting. Fighting may be violent, but all violence is not fighting.

One last thing, there are many editorials about banning fighting in hockey. This season, with passion perceived at an all-time low, we've seen an abnormally high number of pro-fighting articles. Last year, not as many, and pre-lockout the media seemed to be very anti-fighting, or at least the pro-fighting folks didn't say much.


Doogie2K said...

I guess another relevant question is, where did it come from? How did we evolve from shinny to this showcase that is equal parts brutality and beauty? I've heard it said that at some point, people started playing it like lacrosse, but I'm curious how, when, and why.

As for the subsegments of the pro-fighting faction, I'm of a mind that brawls are occasionally entertaining but generally unnecessary, and that the instigator rule kills the whole point of the exercise, and degenerates it into pointless theatre.

Julian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julian said...

I really need to learn to edit before I post...

Another history bit : The very first hockey players (James Crighton was the first guy who actually wrote down rules and set up the first real organized game) were primarily rugby players, and they borrowed some of the rules of rugby for hockey.
Hockey in Russia meanwhile, evolved from a game called Bandy (essentially field hockey on ice.... which would make it ice hockey I suppose, but with different sticks...) which has no body contact. So you can see how the respective backgrounds meant different versions of ice hockey.

Lawrence Scanlan wrote “... the genius - and sometimes bane - of hockey lies in the grace and the fire being so tightly interwoven” in Grace Under Fire. Hockey didn't evolve into a violent game, it was from the very start. If anything, it's evolving into a less violent game.

E, I know it seems like all I do is come here and tell you what book has already covered the topic you just spent a good deal of time thinking about and writing about, and I certainly don't mean it in that way, but I thought I'd mention the book "The Professionalization of Young Hockey Players" by a guy called Edmund Vaz. It's an older book, but I read some parts of it once for an essay on hockey violence, here's a quote from it I have :

“The values of aggressiveness, toughness and courage are laid bare in the remarks of the players and coaches at all levels of organized hockey. These values are included in the training of these youths, and at the ice level of action they are considered important technical skills.”
Like Scanlan said, "tightly interwoven".

E said...

olivier- you're right, i haven't really addressed the issue of rules in any substantive way yet, either in terms of their relationship to violence or to various competing notions of fairness. hopefully i'll get there in future...

f.- i get your point, but i find it a bit reductionist. i've had some experience of other sports in my life and i feel reasonably confident in saying that hockey has a pretty unique, or at least quite distinctive, relationship to violence. what the contours of that relationship are is up for debate. but i think it's more complex than boys being boys, or girls being girls, for that matter.

doogie- violence as theater, that's part 2...

julian- why are you continually raising things that require lengthy responses? there's a whole conversation about origins/symbolism/meaning that's hiding behind your comments, but i can't think of a way to sum it up concisely. anyway, the book recommendations are always welcomed, and for a variety of reasons i'm not actually too worried about replication of ideas.

Julian said...

yeah, I know I said I'd make a list for you, but I was gonna do something about my "top five hockey books", but not having them with me makes it alot more difficult to accomplish.

And you needn't worry about any replication of ideas, you've got an interesting vantage point and you write really well, so don't let anything keep you from continuing.

Olivier said...

Julian: That list of hockey books, post it here when you feel like it...

E: I'd just like to insist on what may not have appeared as my main point even tough it is: in hockey, delinquency, that is the ability to transgress the rules (whatever those rules may be) is a highly valuable skill, and the ability of some teams to correctly assess such skill is a true advantage. Pat Quinn's Maple Leafs comes to mind, but then again I may just be a disgruntled habs fan...

E said...

olivier- your's is an important point, but i feel like it's distinct from the question of violence, since violence in hockey has a somewhat negotiable relationship with the rules. the rules of hockey explicitly sanction certain sorts of violence, while restricting others in various ways, but even so, most 'illegal' hockey violence is actually a trade-off wherein a player essentially buys the right to hurt someone with 2-5 minutes of his time (which in the case of the fighting penalty isn't even a sacrifice of strategic significance for the team as a whole). but the fact remains that the most rule-breaking team or player is not necessarily the most violent.

that said, the subject you're raising is interesting in it's own right and deserves to be discussed on its own terms. i agree that there's definitely a multi-layered power structure here wherein certain practices which are often declared to be in violation of either the rules or the mysterious 'code' (another interesting subject) are actually on other levels desired and even encouraged.

Doogie2K said...

If we're on the subject of books on hockey violence, When the Lights Went Out by Gare Joyce is also pretty good. While not all bench-clearing brawls are quite like the one in Piestany, which I don't think even the participants really quite understood, it certainly shone a harsh light on my own love of hockey violence, and has definitely caused me to pause to think about it somewhat. You've beaten me to the massive essay on the nature of the beast, though you're coming at it from a very different perspective than I would.