Our national blood sport

Hockey’s vaunted moral code is a shambles. PLUS The ‘Top 10’ cheap shots during the 2009 NHL Playoffs.

Our national blood sport

At this time of year, as we are often told, it’s all about sending a message. And from the opening moments of the NHL playoffs, things have been crystal clear. Down 4-1 in the waning seconds of their first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Philadelphia Flyers trotted out winger Dan Carcillo—the league leader in penalty minutes—to take the final faceoff. He never touched the puck, but he did live up to expectations, smacking the Penguins’ Maxime Talbot across the head with the butt end of his stick.

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: (Video) Top 10 cheap shots during the 2009 NHL Playoffs

There was no penalty, but the next day, the league handed Carcillo a one-game suspension, and fined Philly coach John Stevens US$10,000. “Organizations—players and coaches—will be held accountable for such actions,” said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s vice-president of hockey operations. He referred to a conference call, just prior to the playoffs, where general managers and coaches were warned that late game shenanigans would not be tolerated. It’s tempting to say the league’s chief disciplinarian “set the tone.” Except for the inconvenient fact that only hours later, Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri delivered an even more flagrant shot to the head of the Blackhawks’ Martin Havlat. The Flames winger got two minutes for high-sticking, but no further punishment. Viewers may not have seen the difference between the two incidents, but the league did. Cammalleri’s a goal scorer, not a “repeat offender,” went the official reasoning, but the Carcillo hit came in the final period. “At the end of the game, that’s bullying,” Campbell told the CBC. “I like tough hockey, but it crosses the line.”

And things have become no clearer as the playoffs progress. The Capitals’ Donald Brashear got a total of six games for pre-match taunting, and a vicious blind-side hit that left New York’s Blair Betts with a concussion and broken orbital bone. Carolina’s Scott Walker got a $2,500 fine and no suspension for a sucker punch that may have left the Bruins’ Aaron Ward with the exact same facial injury.

In most sports, a rule is a rule. Only Canada’s national obsession seems to work differently. Regulations are selectively enforced, depending on the offender and the game-time circumstance. Frontier justice—hockey’s mythic cycle of revenge and retribution—isn’t just tolerated, but encouraged. Think of another sport where injuries are only euphemistically described as upper or lower body. Or one where the game’s most popular commentator can object to a star player’s on-ice antics, and be seen as “defending” the game when he declares, “I’m predicting somebody’s gonna get him, and get him good.” In a season where the tragic death of Don Sanderson, an amateur player, has pushed the pros to consider the idea of limiting, if not banning, fighting, there’s a deeper truth that no one seems ready to acknowledge. The sport we love—fast, exciting, rough and tumble—is rotten at its core. The “code” is broken. And we’re all to blame.

Bryan Lewis, the NHL’s former director of officiating, is running his finger down the index page of hockey’s rule book and rattling off some of the additions since he reffed his first big league game in 1966. “Rule 21.1—eye-gouging, 64.1—diving, 75.2—hair-pulling, 58.4—spitting, slew-footing—52.1.” The list gets longer by the year. In his first season, the book ran around 75 pages. In 2008-2009, it came in at 224.

Hockey orthodoxy says the poor sportsmanship has been sped along by efforts to limit fighting by assessing additional instigating or aggressor minors for those who start, or persist, in the fisticuffs. (An argument undercut by the fact that those penalties were handed out in fewer than 10 per cent of the 734 fights this NHL season.) In the good old days, the story goes, players policed themselves, and rule-breakers had to answer for their crimes; a tooth for a tooth. Lewis, with more than 1,000 games of on-ice experience, doesn’t buy that guff. Fighting has little to do with how the players treat each other, he says, and could be removed from the pro game without any real consequences—although he doesn’t support a ban. “These rules are all in the book because somebody has done it,” says Lewis. “If the players really had respect for one another, that wouldn’t be the case.”

Certainly, there has been no shortage of bad behaviour this year, some of it subject to the league’s quirky standards of discipline, other incidents simply ignored:

  • Ottawa’s Jarkko Ruutu was suspended for two games in January for biting the Sabres’ Andrew Peters. Later in the month, the league gave the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom a game apiece for pulling out of the All-Star festivities.
  • In mid-March, the Sharks’ Brad Staubitz laid an epic beating on Nashville’s Jordin Tootoo, featuring mixed-martial-arts-style elbows to the face. Both players got fighting majors, but there was no additional punishment for Staubitz because such blows aren’t prohibited.
  • After earning himself an “indefinite” suspension for remarks about an ex-girlfriend, Sean Avery returned in March and showed why he is the NHL’s most-hated player. During a commercial time out in Boston, he rapped goaltender Tim Thomas across the back of his head with his stick. Thomas went nuts. Both players got two-minute roughing minors.
  • Even the cleanest hits now seem cause for retaliation. Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby fought Florida’s Keith Ballard after the Panther sent Evgeni Malkin flying with a completely legal hip check. The NHL’s general managers have vowed to crack down on such revenge tactics—in a fashion. “It’s always been there for stars and it’s always been there for goalies,” says Toronto’s Brian Burke. “But recently it’s gone to you hit Joe Schwartz and you have to fight . . . I don’t get that.”

Not that any of this is particularly out of character for the game. “This sport was always about dominating or intimidating other players—whether it was through skill, or bodychecking, or speed, or fighting,” says Kevin Wamsley, a sport historian at the University of Western Ontario. For complex reasons of community, commercialism and national identity, Canadians grew to believe that hockey—unlike almost any other sport in the world—operates in its own closed world with unique rules and natural justice. Every few years, an outburst like Marty McSorley’s stick attack on Brashear, or Todd Bertuzzi’s mugging of Steve Moore, generates headlines, perhaps police involvement, and hand-wringing about “the state of our game.” But lessons are never learned. Checkered hardly describes the game’s past, present or future. “Fans have been born and raised on this kind of hockey and it’s been going on for generations,” says Wamsley. “We’ve created an institution that celebrates violence, protects the perpetrators and renders the victims invisible.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Sidney Crosby was in Don Cherry’s doghouse. The bombastic former coach first singled Crosby out for criticism when he was still playing junior, deriding his “hot dog” showmanship. And once he hit the bigs, he was often dismissed as a “whiner.” There is no more powerful voice in Canadian hockey than Cherry. So, it was not insignificant a few weeks back when Cherry anointed Crosby as the embodiment of the on-ice virtues he has made a career of extolling. “Now he hits, he fights, he blocks shots,” the fashion plate pronounced. “He’s a hockey player now.” News, surely, to the phenom, who in just his fourth NHL season has won a scoring championship, an MVP award, and captained his team to the Stanley Cup finals.

In the end, Crosby’s ascension may have more to do with Alex Ovechkin than a change in his style of play. The Capitals’ flamboyant Russian star is Cherry’s newest bête noire. His wild goal celebrations, like warming his hands over his “burning” stick after he notched his 50th, do not sit well with the self-appointed keeper of hockey’s code. “He runs at guys, does this stuff, makes fools of people,” Cherry carped, predicting, if not quite inviting, revenge. “There’s some big defenceman who is going to be sitting in the weeds, as he cuts across centre ice, and they’re going to cut him in half.” The segment garnered its share of criticism, but most of it focused on Cherry’s use of foreign soccer players to illustrate the dangers of excessive celebration, evidence, some suggested, of xenophobia. Fewer took issue with the idea that Ovechkin deserves “what’s coming to him”—proof of how hockey’s mythology long ago became justification for its violent reality.

Defenders of the NHL’s status quo argue that the violence and toughness at the heart of the game are an intrinsic part of what makes it great. “The code isn’t just fighting, it’s blocking shots, playing when you are hurt, getting stitches between periods,” says Ross Bernstein, author of The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. Hockey is evolving, he says, but not necessarily for the better. The hard-rock goons are giving way to a new breed of super-pests, like the Rangers’ Avery, Dallas’s Ott, or Ottawa’s Ruutu, who don’t feel bound by the traditions of yore. And the extra skating room has made for a faster game, but also higher-impact collisions. “Everything in hockey got bigger except for the size of the ice,” says Bernstein. The logical next step would be to increase the playing surface, but that’s not going to happen any time soon in the financially challenged NHL.

After all, for all the worn hockey clichés about heart, desire, grit, and sacrifice, money is what makes the game go ’round. In a 30-club league, the search for advantage—on the ice and at the box office—is relentless. Coaches employ agitators because they believe goading opponents results in more power plays, they pay fighters because intimidation “opens up ice.” Both paths, so the thinking goes, lead to more victories, bums in the seats, and bigger rewards for everyone involved.

During his 10-season NHL career, Tony Twist scored just 10 goals, but amassed 1,121 penalty minutes. One of the league’s most-feared heavyweights, he made his living with his fists. “I lived by the code,” he says. “I was a one-dimensional player who fit a one-dimensional role. My job was to serve and protect.” The league can change the rules, but it will never remove the imperatives that drive fighting. “When you get grown men, playing in a forum for an extraordinary amount of money, you are going to have conflict,” says Twist.

Neil Sheehy had a different sort of career. As a Calgary Flame in the mid-1980s, he was one of the pioneering super-pests, taking extreme liberties with the opposition’s best players—especially Wayne Gretzky—and flaunting the code’s dictums. “Tough guys had to fight me. I didn’t have to fight them,” he says. It wasn’t a popular stance. “Referees would look at me and say, don’t worry, you are going to get yours.” But it was effective, drawing opposing players into the box and throwing good teams off their game. Still, Sheehy regrets helping change the game for the worse. Tinkering with the rules—whether it’s the unofficial ones, or the type of obstruction crackdown he was among the first to advocate—has far-reaching consequences. Today’s game is better suited to the type of skilled players—Jason Blake, Zach Parise—that he and his brother Tim represent as agents. But there is less “accountability” for those who would seek to hurt them, he notes.

Sheehy knows better than most that players with NHL aspirations will do whatever it takes. As a high school star, and through four years on Harvard’s team, he was hardly a habitual offender. “I never had a fight until training camp in my first year as a pro.” Sheehy finished his NHL days with 1,311 penalty minutes in just 379 games.

We already know what hockey would look like without the cheap shots, intimidation, and after-the-whistle scrums that so characterize the NHL game. The answer is found at the Olympics, the World Junior Championships, and in every rink in Canada. “I don’t think you’d ever find somebody in minor or amateur hockey talking about the code,” says Todd Anderson, Hockey Canada’s manager of officiating. “That’s something that gets brought up at the NHL level.” There is no dropping the gloves and squaring off in kids’ hockey. Anderson thinks this is the game’s future. “You look at the talent coming up through the system—Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos. They’re clean and exciting to watch—models of the new style.”

Bernie Pascall, a former play-by-play voice of the Vancouver Canucks, wrote a report on eliminating hockey violence for the B.C. government in 2000. He too sees significant progress at the grassroots. “We’re telling boys and girls not to do it, but you can’t eliminate it because they see it at the major league level,” he says.

Fixing the game will also require the fans to acknowledge their own roles. An Angus Reid survey found 61 per cent of all Canadians say they want fighting out of the game. Yet 63 per cent of self-described fans oppose such a ban, and 62 per cent agreed that punch-ups are a “significant part” of the sport. Wamsley says the popular resistance to truly reforming the game is considerable. “We all chose to keep the violence,” he says. “A lot of people grew up to believe that it’s an expression of masculinity.”

On the first night of this year’s playoffs, Hockey Night in Canada broadcast a 2½-minute intro, tapping into all the mythic power and glory that surrounds the quest for the Stanley Cup. There was footage of Bobby Baun being carried off the ice on a stretcher, shots of Bob Gainey and Patrick Marleau with blood dripping from freshly stitched wounds, Scott Stevens levelling Daymond Langkow, and a clip of Frank Mahovlich almost decapitating a player with his stick. “You have to feel that hate,” narrates Boston’s Marc Savard. Millions watched the intro from the comfort of their living rooms, and it’s been viewed thousands more times on the Internet. But so far, there’s only one comment on the CBC’s website. “Amazing compilation of clips. Brings chills watching it!!!” it reads. “Is it available for download?”

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