Monday, December 15, 2008

The horror, the horror... frankly, it's beyond our Ken

The next sportswriting trope that has to go: The notion of hockey in Canada, free from skulduggery.

That thought has been rattling around for the past 24 hours, since news of a 21-year-old Ontario man named Don Sanderson (it was noted in today's Snark Break) suffering a critical injury in a senior hockey game last Friday in Brantford began making the rounds. Every sportswriter — present company very included — has written that column in the wake of some disturbing incident, calling upon people to realize there is a stain on the great game of hockey. The Hockey News' Ken Campbell, God love him, wrote a post this afternoon saying this is a reminder that it's only a matter of time until the NHL has a fatality from a fight. Someone could die from a cut from a skate blade, but they don't pad the skates with foam rubber.

It's a false sentiment based on an illusion that needs to be taken down. This idea that one day hockey in Canada will be free of all this is nothing but a cynical conjurer's canard. Well-meant sentiments aside, it won't prevent something like this from happening again to some obscure player in an obscure league.

There is a problem with unchecked aggression. The corrosive effect of the NHL and its media partners condoning violence (Colin Campbell's Wheel of Justice, Don Cherry's rhapsodizing about the swapping of knuckles and such) has probably shaped how people behave at rinks, but whether it's even the biggest influence is debatable. The loss of a sense of community, the disconnect people feel from each other, the swath that globalization has cut through rural Ontario, all of that can be seen as to contributors to how people carry on at the rink.

True there are places where the hockey culture is largely free of all this — college hockey, female hockey, the United States, Russia, Scandinavia, pretty much all of Europe, really. Football and rugby are contact sports with just as much head-knocking, but the level of respect shown toward opponents and officials is completely different.

The truth, which no one likes to confront, might be way beyond the ken of some ass-talking blog-writin' guy, but there is something so elemental about hockey that cannot be expunged. It's been there for more than a century, and there's as many explanations for it as there are poor bastards who were left with a permanent reminder of this cold, hard hockey truth. I've said it before, I'll say it again: We never learn. Sanderson's situation, while tragic, is not going to do anything to diminish any sportswriter, anywhere, from writing raptorously about the local team's enforcer, or a team's need for toughness (although holding off on it for a while would be a good idea). This is about what is, and not what should be.

This particular league had safeguards in place (as Campbell notes, the OHL senior league automatically ejects players for fighting, which is not the case in many amateur leagues). There will be more to come, including a ban on players removing their helmets before a fight (no one's said if this happened in Sanderson's case).

Point being. It still happened. Perhaps there's a counter-point that Sanderson, who previously played in a Provincial Junior A league that doesn't have fighting, was ill-equipped to be in a fight. It sounds monstrous, but so is the thought of parents losing their son.

It will happen again, and then it will happen again. The point is the notion of clean hockey in Canada is a pipe dream, unless the sports drops sharply in social import. The danger draws people in, for good and ill.

Latest fighting injury another warning for NHL (Ken Campbell, The Hockey News)
Is Don Sanderson story the wake-up call hockey needs? (


Andy said...

Slightly guilty of cherry picking here, but there is no respect shown toward officials in European soccer, and increasingly little respect shown toward opponents. Other points well taken though.

Dennis Prouse said...

This is a tragic story. As of this evening, there were no updates to Sanderson's condition. When it comes to brain injury, no news is bad news, as the first 48 hours are critical in terms of seeing some improvement. I pray that he comes out of this, but as each day passes the prospects for a good outcome grow dimmer.

Without getting into the whole fighting debate, I would be curious to know how his helmet was fitting. Typically hockey players wear helmets that fit too big - players don't like snug helmets because they are "hot" and "uncomfortable". You will also see them with chinstraps dangling down to their navels for the same reason - snug chinstraps aren't comfortable, so they loosen them off just as far as the officials will allow them.

You can't legislate away youth and testosterone, and the bad judgement that often accompanies it. Young guys are young guys, and they often engage in risky behaviour, whether it is fighting in a hockey game, riding a snowmobile over open water, or driving a motorcycle too fast for conditions. At age 43, I look back on some of the bad choices I made back in the day and simply say, "There but for the grace of God go I."