Wednesday, January 21, 2009

dancing madly backwards


With the unfortunate death of Don Sanderson, the debate is rekindled in some spaces of the hockey media (between those spaces where the debate has never ended) over whether fighting should be banned from the sport. It makes for an uncomfortable spectacle, from this vantage point, in which a sport insecure in the globalized world of sport anxiously questions itself; an uncomfortable and public identity crisis which distracts casual viewers from the beauty of the game with the question of an ugly trifle. The issue presents a peculiar conundrum, where the basic premise that fighting should stay remains unassailable, while most of the arguments in favor of this premise fail.

The idea, for instance, that fighters alone allow the players to police themselves is a flawed one. Hockey is a game unlike any other, in that players are allowed considerable leeway in exacting legal retribution on another player. Other sports institutionalize deviant behavior in minor ways (stealing signs in baseball, the pick and roll in basketball), but hockey players are allotted a wide range of subtle obstructions: sticks to the groin, hands and ankles, facewashes, jabs to the back, sprays of snow, on and on. In a game where the baited often end up penalized, there will always be strategic pests. Having a fighter on hand to punish these types is but one of a number of ways to respond, which belies the truth that most fighters end up fighting other fighters as a kind of proxy, a stand-in for a disagreement between two skill players, or a skill player and a pest.

Another argument holds that banning fighting will lead down a slippery slope in which other perceived dangers are also banned. Zednik had his throat slashed, they crow, so why not ban sharp skates? The difference here is obvious. Hockey games are not periodically interrupted by bouts in which two players swing their feet at eachother's necks. The intent to injure is implicit in any fight, and the extreme, if rare, result of a death is nonetheless a natural one.

The worst argument can be summed up in one word, delivered by Mike Milbury in the 1st intermission of Sunday's Pens-Rangers game on NBC: "pansification". The notion is that hockey players, some of the most inalienably rugged people on earth, will suffer some kind of downgrade in machismo if a few among them are not allowed to punch eachother in the head. Leave aside the regrettably outdated misogyny here (which dripped from every word out of Milbury during the NBC debate, a true embarassment to the game on a nationwide stage). Are we really to believe that hockey - with its tradition of playing through debilitating injury, its playoff schedule which demands nothing short of conditioning perfection, its unspoken code dictating that players take pucks to the face, if necessary, to prevent a goal - is in any danger of losing its status as the world's toughest game?

That leaves us at the doorstep of that hallowed institution, the "culture of hockey." As someone who played a bit in high school, I'm as aware as anyone that fighting attaches itself to the game early; some bastard appendage borne of pent-up after practice frustrations, "boxing" with gloves and helmets on atop a pile of sweaty equipment. We train by fighting our own before we go out and fight the enemy. By the time players have grown up through the ranks of the pros, fighting has become a symbolic event, a show of pride that accomplishes little materially (a practice one finds everywhere, as we watch Israel pummel Gaza with no coherent endgame in mind). Hockey's GMs, mostly grandfathers of the fighting tradition, are unlikely to rule in favor of its removal. I suppose they are right not to attempt some top-down revision of the culture, but its hard to see any other way out.

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