In response to Leafs GM mourns demise of NHL enforcers, Toronto Star, 5 January 2012.
“It was Brian Burke’s requiem for the fighter.” So Rosie DiManno’s piece on enforcers and Brian Burke casts Burke as a tragic hero, faced with “an unpleasant task” that “loom[s]” and causes the GM “sleepless nights.” (Colton Orr, a Leafs enforcer, was sent down to the minors; Burke had to make the confirmation call.) DiManno calls Burke’s tirade against the pitiless fates of hockey (here associated with the “Greenpeace folks”) “eloquent,” orchestrating what she sees as the drama and tension underpinning the role of the enforcer (read: fighter) in hockey.
Burke’s nostalgia itself takes centre stage, as he notes that:
Players in the old days, they protected themselves and then it evolved into players protecting their teammates … Now I’m not sure who’s looking after it other than Brendan Shanahan. He needs a telephone receptionist at his house because of all this crap that’s going on on the ice, these guys that won’t back it up, won’t drop their gloves, running around elbowing people in the heading [sic] and (hitting) from behind.
This nostalgia for the “good old days” of hockey, when boys were men and no one wore helmets, relies as much on Burke’s disregard for player safety as it does on his disdain for off-ice decisions. Shanahan’s twenty-one years of professional NHL play, his work to resolve the 2004-05 lockout, and his position as Vice-President of Hockey and Business Development for the NHL does not make him a suited technocrat with no on-ice experience, making arbitrary decisions about hits and fights. The externality of Shanahan’s careful deliberations and full explanations (complete with video) goes some way to ensure that heat-of-the-moment calls by refs and on-ice/bench beaking off aren’t the final word on brutal hits. Shanahan takes his role as Chief Player Disciplinarian seriously.
In Cathal Kelly’s response to the Burke piece (Toronto Star, 10 January, 2012), he draws another voice into the dialogue. Detroit Red Wings VP Jimmy Devellano told a New York Times podcast that if the choice were his, he’d eliminate fighting in hockey immediately. In response to the suggestion that such an elimination would cause an uproar among franchises and fans, he said simply,
Let’s try it first and see if it works.
Why not? Why not take fighting and injury-inducing hits out of the game? Why not focus on skill and speed, puck-control and passing?* Or cast another way: to what is Burke and Co. clinging by advocating for the continuation of enforcers and fighting?
Kelly calls Burke “the spokesperson for the silent majority,” this silence a nod to how the league is changing. The bigger part of the league (players, coaches, executives) may still want fighting and hits as punctuation to its periods, but we don’t often hear this out loud. This is in part why DiManno calls Burke “fearless.” If that’s true, then we need to consider the source and its history.
One of Burke’s own players infamously enforced, dropping his gloves and “(hitting) from behind” when his team’s captain was taken out by a hit to the head, an injury that caused a minor concussion and three missed games. The whole team, it seems, was bent on retaliation. One teammate called for a “bounty” on the player who took out their captain. The fans, it seems, were delighted when Burke’s player took this mentality to its logical conclusion. When the player in question wouldn’t fight back, Burke’s guy simply took him out from behind.
On March 8, 2004, Vancouver went after Steve Moore, with Canuck Matt Cooke fighting him six minutes into the game. This was one of four fights in the first period. NHL executives were concerned enough about the escalating violence that they spoke directly with the two referees during the first intermission. By the third period, Bertuzzi was no longer following the puck, but chasing Moore around the ice in an attempt to instigate a fight. When Moore didn’t bite, Bertuzzi grabbed his jersey from behind, punched him in the back of the head, and fell on top of him—as did several other players from both teams. Moore suffered three fractured vertebrae in his neck, a grade three concussion, vertebral ligament damage, stretching of the brachial plexus nerves, and facial lacerations.
The defense of escalating emotion as the cause of serious fight injury relies on a sleight of hand wherein violence is always the answer. The “fighting as internal regulation” advocates want us to believe that the instigator rule is responsible for the context of Bertuzzi’s hit. If there was no such rule and subsequent hesitation by players trying to avoid penalty, then Moore would have been dealt with immediately and appropriately in the 16 February game where Canuck captain Markus Näslund was first hit. In other words, the problem is not that Bertuzzi and other Canuck players went after Moore for his hit on Näslund. It’s that they didn’t do so soon enough, because of a rule intended to eliminate unnecessary violence.
The media is complicit with this logical fallacy. Sure, emotions will rise if the team captain has been taken out by a legal shot to the head. Particularly when the coach complains to the media that Moore shows no respect for Näslund as the league’s leading scorer. Nor do the two refs who deemed the hit legal in the first place. Particularly when the general manager tells the story of a “marginal player going after a superstar.” Particularly when the media asks each Canuck they have access to how he feels about the hit and what he thinks is the appropriate response. Similar events are taking place right now between the Bruins and the Canucks, as the Toronto Star reported in “Nasty war of words fans flames of Bruins-Canucks rivalry” (Thursday 12 January 2012).
Teammates justifiably upset about an injured captain and reasonably frustrated by what they perceive as a bad call are tweaked into a rage – and we’re all complicit. We beak off at our tvs or fellow bar-mates in hyperbole that inevitably evokes war rhetoric. We attend games and continue to support teams and their televised events despite/because of the violence that the game (we’re told) has in its veins. Bertuzzi’s hit on Moore might have paused the “go for blood!” emotionality behind our nation’s game, but it seemed to have accomplished little other than the usual “can hockey survive without violence?” arguments that bud with all such injuries, bloom briefly, then wither and die until the next spring. The fighting and enforcing in hockey relies on a circular argument, where violence is perpetually reinforced as the only potential outcome. In this logic, the questions are only when and how much. A sport that’s responsible for a player sucker-punching another player from behind doesn’t get to make that call. A General Manager who calls out Moore to the press – and, reportedly, calls out his guys to seek retribution – doesn’t get to advocate for the role of the enforcer.
So who makes the call? When NHL personalities like Burke prop up the necessary violence rule, they do so because they’ve constructed only one oppositional outcome. If we don’t let players go after players who go after players, then players will go after players without penalty. Yes, absolutely. If the focus is on less-skilled players using strength and speed to knock out highly-skilled players, absolutely. But what if the game had a diversity of skilled players who focused on passing, puck control, defensive play, and – umm – scoring? As Burke himself argues, “if there’s no dance partner for Colton Orr then it’s pretty hard to not say that Darryl Boyce gives us more on a given night or maybe Joey Crabb.” In the same breath, Burke—without irony—suggests that removing fighters like Orr means that he would have to maybe use “a guy who can skate better than he can.” Yes, absolutely.
The argument that the NHL is trying to have it both ways is valid, albeit to a similarly skewed conclusion. It’s ridiculous to suggest that players should be allowed to police themselves and then have a rule that prevents them from policing themselves. Agreed.
I am tired of being cast as one of those “Greenpeace folks” who, by virtue of my pacifist liberality, is presented as irrational or not a real fan—that I don’t “get” the game. I love this game. I have the books, clothes, figures, beer steins, and bank-breaking tickets to vouch for this. I read about it, talk about it, think about it, watch it, listen to it, and argue fiercely different aspects of it. Those of the Burkian camp work hard to suggest that fans like me don’t exist—or that our time and dollars don’t count. We do. The more players (see Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke) and teams (see Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins, and San Jose Sharks, for example) move beyond the dark simplicity of thugs on ice, the more fans like me will flock to the game. We can make up, and more, the few who will lose interest when there’s no longer blood on the ice.
Brian Burke, with ties to one of hockey’s darkest and most revealing moments, has to be called out for mourning a shift that not only improves the quality of play, but also improves the quality of life for its players. If not for the guys who are injured in retaliation, then how about for the enforcers themselves? There is a tragic irony in mourning the loss of fighting and the loss of fighters at the same time. 2011 saw the deaths of three respected enforcers: Derek Boogard, 28, accidental overdose. Rick Rypien, 27, suicide. Wade Belak, 35, suicide. Insisting upon the so-called necessity of enforcers in the NHL privileges the position over the person, overlooking the various losses individual bodies (and their families) suffer. It is increasingly clear that—in the “good old days” and today—we’ve underestimated what’s at stake.
For those who are only thrilled by fist-fights, dirty hits, and heads bouncing off various surfaces, there are sports that cater exclusively to such spectacle: UFC and boxing, among others. For those of us who watch hockey for hockey, let’s go: “Let’s try it first and see if it works.”
* Speed is a contentious issue in dialogue about hockey skills. Today’s players are bigger, faster, and stronger than they were in Gretzky’s day, and ice size has not increased to keep pace. The shift away from clutch-and-grab hockey (hooking, holding, obstruction penalties are now more strictly enforced) may well be a strong contributing factor to increased injuries. The game is undeniably more dangerous with stronger, faster athletes and better equipment. That said, the value of speed allows smaller players with skill a chance to shine, making the game more dynamic than if it were a rink filled with Colton Orrs. Softer padding would force players to watch their speed for both intentional and involuntary hits. If a hit hurts them as much as it does the other guys, they won’t go all in. The fantasy of larger ice surface crashes into the reality of game economics. Millions of dollars would be lost to retrofitting arenas and losing some of the highest-paying seats in the arenas.