Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hockey violence: New meaning to left-wing lock

The old line about how youth condemns, maturity condones seems germane after reading a semi-screed about hockey violence in the Saturday Star.

Most of us who are thinking, feeling people realize there is something a little twisted about cheering when two 19-year-olds fight at a major junior hockey game. The guilt is evident in how many synonyms exist for it — donnybrook, punch-up, brouhaha, mêlée, tussle. That doesn't constitute a "venomous, backward support for brawling," as the Star screedster, Sarah Barmak, claims.

It's an understanding that there is only what is, not what should be. Once again, for people who think they can pontificate on the Canadian zeitgeist even though they've never stepped out of their Toronto mindset (Barmak is a former editor at the U of T paper, The Varsity): "The notion of clean hockey in Canada is a pipe dream, unless the sport drops sharply in social import."

One would hope that some day that wouldn't be the case, but Barmak's bombast about hockey being a "bar room-style bloodsport" is not going to serve that purpose. It's only going to make a bigger wedge between the people who still defend fighting and those who have an open mind about banning it.

Change comes gradually, not from belittling people and quoting academics who actually claim that, "The NHL has not had a history of violence until quite recently." Gordon Russell of the University of Lethbridge, has evidently never heard of Eddie Shore or Red Horner, both of whom set records for penalties — and are both in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He's never heard of Sprague Cleghorn, either.

Do some research, people. The major misunderstanding of pieces of Barmakian bombast, beyond the obvious left-of-centre literalism, is not appreciating that every game has a view of the world attached. It's not like someone sat down one day and wrote out the rules of hockey and said, "Hey, let's allow fighting."

Hockey came into being in the late 19th and early 20th century, which was a time of social tension that goes way beyond our contemporary understanding. Canadians — and perhaps Barmak's apparent failure goes to show how poorly Canadian history is taught — weren't always so nice and genial.

In those days, there was virulent English-French tension (ever heard of D'Arcy McGee?), the Riel Rebellion, the struggle for women's suffrage, the Winnipeg General Strike and so on. Life was tough if you weren't a white man and we are so much better off that is not the case anymore. The idea that sports was a healthy release for male aggression, for boys to be boys, was also in vogue in that era in between the Civil War in the U.S. and the First World War. Of course, that was later discredited a thousand times over, but that doesn't mean it can be discounted for shaping the hockey mentality.

That helps explain why hockey has evolved differently in the U.S., Scandinavia and continental Europe. It is not media-inculcated; it's not because of big money, except to people who like to hate on the media and big money.

As for the apologists who point out that Canadians watch the World Juniors en masse even though it has no fighting, please. The short duration of the tournament, the automatic ejection for fighting, the unwillingness of U.S. and European players to drop their gloves and the panopticon effect of saturation media coverage all act to keep a lid on the rough stuff. No one fights at the World Juniors because there is so much emphasis placed on the games and so many people watching; it's a little different than a Saturday night game in Salmon Arm.

The fact also remains that the tournament took on a cultural significance for Canadians after one of our teams lost a gold medal for fighting. It would be too glib by half, but you could take from that the World Juniors have come mean so much because we want to prove we can win a major hockey tournament without resorting to the lowest common denominator (well, there's that, plus what else is on during the holidays?).

The point is, you change in drips and drabs, not through badgering. Not to be a condescending dickhead about it, but a writer such as Sarah Barmak will get a lot farther by trying to understand instead of thinking the worst of anyone who doesn't read from her songbook.

This notion of hockey free from skulduggery is way, way off, but if people gradually get less and less animated when there's a fight, if the leagues increase the penalties for it, it will start to disappear. The fact two OHL players were each suspended a game this week for removing their helmets before a fight will do more good (although it's only a modest start) than anything so doctrinaire.

Canada, we have a problem: Our national game has become inextricably linked with brutal violence (Sarah Barmak, Toronto Star)
OHL takes a stand on helmets (Terry Doyle, Loose Pucks, Jan. 8)

1 comment:

Mike Radoslav said...

Good write up Neate! I agree there are right ways and wrong ways to approach an issue like fighting in hockey, and bashing people over the head is not the way to go about it.