If there’s anything that signifies how broad of a hot-button issue the fighting-in-hockey debate has become these days, it might be the fact that Dan Rather, of all people, recently appeared on a TSN sports talk show to provide his opinion. “The fans want to see violence,” he lamented to TSN’s Michael Landsberg, as I wondered what the hell Dan Rather possibly knew about the sport. But after doing some digging, I see that Rather’s not new to covering violence in hockey. As a CBS Evening News reporter in 1982, he explained the significance of the Islanders’ winning the Stanley Cup in a bit that segued into the following report from his colleague David Culhane, according to a summary of the program on Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive website:
(Vancouver, British Columbia) Issue of violence in hockey examined; scenes shown. Philadelphia Flyer Paul Holmgren shown hitting referee Andy van Hellemond; significance of event considered. Criticism by referees of National Hockey League’s inaction against Holmgren discussed. [NHL president John ZIEGLER – defs. penalty.] Separate incidents involving player Terry O’Reilly, and referee Bob Hall described, shown. [HALL – is alarmed at increase in violence.] NHL, at referees insistence, said forming panel to discuss attacks on officials.
Four years later, in 1986, Rather was again part of a segment decrying violence in the sport. His involvement served as the same flood marker then that he is now: Whenever fear about hockey’s goons and enforcers and their fierce physicality rises high enough, it breaches whatever Rather’s serving. Fifteen years ago, same story as today:
(Studio: Dan Rather) Report introduced.
(Boston, Massachusetts: Ned Potter) City’s threat to take legal action against violent athletes such as hockey players examined; details given, scenes shown. [Mayor Raymond FLYNN — defs. crackdown.] Reaction of head of National Hockey League quoted. [“Sports Illustrated” spokesperson Mark MULVOY — thinks fights attract fans.] [PEOPLE — agree; want Flynn to mind his own business] Irony in situation considered.
“Irony in situation considered”: I like that. It’s a useful way to describe the impossible process of trying to justify the relationship between hockey and violence, that circuitous feedback loop of contradictions and seeming hypocrisies. Try explaining to someone why an errant elbow to the head is a cheap shot that will earn a player a suspension, yet a fist to the face is not only OK, it’s solemnly honored.1 Check out their reaction when you point out that Paul Holmgren, the very man once featured by CBS as the violent assailant who caused “the formation of panels to discuss attacks on officials,” is now the Philadelphia Flyers GM. Good luck watching a game with a casual fan and getting them to see why you’re applauding, for fantasy purposes, a player who gets whistled for roughing. “See, if it were a real hockey team, you’d want players to take penalties sometimes, as long as they’re not stupid penalties ” O-K.
And when you find yourself with longtime hockey fans who know full well what the elusive “code” is and what it means, and who also know that they don’t (they can’t!) agree with a good swath of its clauses — have fun handling that. Because no matter how much you think you get it, no matter how nuanced you find your position to be, you’ll ultimately be boiled down by big-picture talking heads like Dan Rather, reduced to statements like: “The fans want to see violence” — even if that’s not how you see it at all.
The other thing Dan Rather had covered, much more recently and in much greater depth than his mid-’80s dalliances with hockey, is the brain. Specifically: What can go wrong with it. More specifically: What has so often already gone wrong with it thanks to sports. In a series of Dan Rather Reports shows on HDNet in 2009, Rather examined the long-term ramifications of repeated head injuries among athletes. At the time, Malcolm Gladwell compared football to dog fighting in the New Yorker and the New York Times‘ Alan
Schwartz Schwarz continued his work on an endless number of pieces linking athletes to CTE and CTE to early-onset depression, dementia, and death. His work was cited by Congress in hearings they held on the matter. The NFL came under scrutiny once again in the New Yorker when Ben McGrath asked: “Does Football Have a Future?”
The NHL got one paragraph out of McGrath’s 10,000-word New Yorker piece, which was published a few weeks after Sidney Crosby, in old athletic parlance, had his bell rung in the Winter Classic.2 “Hockey may now have a concussion crisis on its hands,” McGrath wrote. It sure does: After a summer in which one former and two current NHL players were found dead, each under very different circumstances but all after having played hockey, and having played hockey rough, it’s now alarm bells that are being rung. And few have pealed louder and clearer than John Branch’s devastating three-part New York Times series on the life and death of Derek Boogaard, one of hockey’s biggest and most fearsome “enforcers” and one of this summer’s deceased.
Branch’s work is brimming with heartbreaking detail and heart-racing media — it has attendant fight videos, player and family interviews, and interactive graphics — and yet it’s also summed up with chilling elegance in just 11 words, the sum of the titles of each of its parts:
“Learning to Brawl“
“Blood on the Ice”
“A Brain ‘Going Bad’”
The third section contains the news that the pugilistic Boogaard’s brain, donated to researchers by his family, showed not just signs of CTE but the kind of full-blown deterioration usually not found until decades down the road — and even then to devastating effect. While, Branch writes, everyone had always been most worried about another part of Boogaard’s body, his gnarled, crumbled hands, it was his mind that was becoming most broken. We’re now at the point where the big fears about athletes are no longer whether they’ll be able to crouch down to play with their children, it is whether they’ll even be in the right mind to want to.
It’s hard to read Branch’s work and not come away feeling sickened by the concept of fighting in hockey and the toll it can take on a human. On the other hand, elsewhere on the New York Times website is a piece called “A New Worry for Soccer Parents: Heading the Ball” about the brain damage found in since-childhood soccer players, which is “similar to [that] seen in traumatic brain injury.” Do the people who want to end fighting in hockey want children to stop heading soccer balls, too?
Really, the scarier story revealed in Branch’s Boogaard article isn’t the stuff about instigators and punches, it’s the parts about institutions and pills. Boogaard ultimately died of an overdose of Oxycontin and alcohol; his appetite for the painkillers — often eight at a time — was well sated, Branch writes, by NHL doctors, many of whom either didn’t know or didn’t want to know what other NHL doctors had already prescribed. Branch alleges that Boogaard was given a heads-up when NHL drug tests were coming. When he died, he was on leave from league-sponsored rehab. The New York Rangers have put their players under a gag order on the topic. “We’ve been told not to talk about it,” Sean Avery said. “I certainly have opinions on it, but we’ve been told not to comment.”
Todd Fedoruk, another fighter whose face was shattered by Boogaard’s fist before the two ended up teammates, suffered from drug and alcohol addictions of his own. Quoted extensively in Branch’s article, Fedoruk agreed to answer follow-up reader questions. Since he’s not on the Rangers, he shared his opinions freely. Asked about his current thoughts on the place of fighting in hockey, he said:
“Now, understand that my take on fighting in hockey is my opinion. I feel that injuries from dangerous hits and stick infractions are best dealt with amongst the players. There are certain players who have no respect for the opponent. A fighter enforces that respect amongst players. Without the enforcer, the free reign for dangerous plays on key players is not kept in check — no matter how many rule changes or suspensions you hand out.”
Asked about whether he’s considered the consequences for kids, he responded:
“Let’s get one thing straight: Violence is not encouraged in hockey; physical play is. Protection seems to be a byproduct. My kids understand this, and so do hockey fans.”
There we go again with that circular, inexplicable logic. The fans don’t want to see violence, they want to see physical play. Physical play means protection. Protection maybe means violence. Hockey fans understand this. Irony in situation: considered.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
As happened last time, two of the week’s best goals were traded in the same game.3 As the final seconds of an Ottawa power play ticked down Wednesday night against Washington, the Senators’ Nick Foligno blew past exhausted Dennis Wideman, who was trapped on the ice in a long defensive shift on the penalty kill. Foligno maneuvered around traffic in front of the net and scored what I can only describe as a reverse wraparound goal to give Ottawa a 2-1 lead late in the second. (Just about the only thing he didn’t do on the play was his father’s signature leap.)4
But in a response straight out of a production of Ovi Get Your Gun, Alex Ovechkin would create the space for a go-ahead score of his own in the third period. Just about four minutes after Nicklas Backstrom tied the game 2-2 on a Capitals power play, Ovechkin received the puck all the way back at the right face-off dot in his defensive zone, flew down the left side of the ice and all the way behind and around the net, began heading back up the right side, and then stopped on a dime, shedding his defender by several body lengths.
The whole sequence looked like a high-speed chase, with Ovechkin veering into a getaway side street as a pursuing police car skidded helplessly past. He faked a slap shot, slowed it down to a snap shot, and finally became the Ovechkin of old — the one whose disappearance this season has caused whispers ranging from “everyone’s on to his game” to, more recently, “he must have stopped taking steroids.”5 I’ll take Old Ovi, please — at least until the Rangers join his division next year.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performances
With the way he’s been playing this season, no one could have imagined that Tyler Seguin might appear in this space. But the Bruins’ young cub hibernated a bit too long Tuesday morning, missing a mandatory team breakfast in Winnipeg that earned him a healthy scratch in the team’s game against the Jets later that night. Both Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien remarked that this wasn’t the first offense of this nature for Seguin, the team’s leading scorer. “He’s had a couple of incidents before over the course of his career,” Chiarelli said, while Julien noted, “It’s not based on just one thing.” The small mistake set off the predictable (but no less enjoyable) wave of minor absurdities: Seguin claimed to have made the screwup because his alarm was still set to Boston time, an excuse that, as Matt Kalman pointed out, defied simple math.6 And CSN’s Joe Haggerty jokingly implied that perhaps it was all an evil scheme hatched by Jordan Caron, Seguin’s “Odd Couple” roommate in Boston and, ostensibly, on the road. Caron did end up taking Seguin’s place in the lineup, after all, though any plan didn’t exactly work out: With Seguin watching uncomfortably from the press box, the Bruins lost to Winnipeg, 2-1.
Taking It Coast to Coast: A Skate Around the League
- Speaking of Winnipeg, Mark Sanchez isn’t the only one who’s been the target of Jets fans’ booing of late. The crowds assembled to watch the hockey Jets have taken to expressing their displeasure — not with their own team, however. During last Thursday’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes (née Winnipeg Jets), the crowd at the MTS Centre booed any and every Phoenix player. (This included Shane Doan, the last active player to have been a part of the original Jets franchise; Doan was momentarily cheered, however, during one break in action when he was welcomed back on the JumboTron.) The New Jersey Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk, who formerly played for the Atlanta Thrashers and bolted two seasons before the team relocated to Winnipeg, had the most amusing reaction to the Jets crowd after they jeered him every time he touched the puck Saturday: “They should support me,” he said. “Maybe I’m one of the reasons they moved here.”
- Not sure which I like more: this guy’s handcrafted, chain mail San Jose Sharks jersey or the commenter who coolly weighed in: “The only thing I don’t like is it fits too tightly I live by the rule that if a jersey cannot fit equipment underneath, you are a tool for wearing it that being said, a larger size would have added 150 hours of labor, so I’ll cut him some slack.”
- I wrote a post for The Triangle about the aftermath of the NHL Board of Governor’s sweeping realignment decision. One point to mention: It was almost on cue that the Buffalo Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers played a satisfyingly see-sawing, physical, goal-happy game on Wednesday night, a game that ended in a 5-4 overtime win for a Philly team that had been down 3-0 in the first period. Those are exactly the sort of almost-rivalries that are going to be made less intense by realignment. The two teams will see each other only twice a season from now on, down from four. In contrast to last year’s intense seven-game first-round playoff series, they’d now have to both make it all the way to the Cup semifinals for the possibility of a rematch. (Perhaps one day we’ll get a rematch of the 1974-75 Flyers-Sabres Stanley Cup finals, though.)
- OK, IS THERE ANYTHING DAN BYLSMA CAN’T DO? I MEAN, COME ON.
- Things are starting to really get hectic for NHL VP of player safety Brendan Shanahan. On Tuesday, the league suspended Nashville’s Jordin Tootoo for flattening Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller in Miller’s first game back since he was last flattened by Milan Lucic. While Lucic got zero games — a decision that is looking more and more like Shanahan’s biggest misstep7 — Tootoo was assessed a two-game penalty. A day later, the NHL levied a controversial three-game suspension on Dallas’ Mark Fistric for a hit on the Islanders’ Nino Niederreiter.8
- Here’s a look inside the NHL’s video replay “Situation Room.” The soundtracks the league puts on these videos are beyond insane. I keep waiting for Bruce Willis to tell Liv Tyler he loves her before blowing himself up, or for Gotham City to rise again.
- After missing most of last season and the first couple of months of this one recovering from a concussion, a popular NHL player returned and scored a goal on his very first shot in his first game back. Nope, not the one that you’re thinking of! It was the St. Louis Blues’ David Perron. Stick taps to him.
- Meanwhile, Dion Phaneuf (legally) doled out a concussion, and in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ luxury box full of fathers there was much rejoicing.
- Looking at special teams play around the league, one stat immediately jumps out: The New Jersey Devils have allowed only five power-play goals, the fewest in the league by more than half. (Toronto has allowed five times as many.) Accounting for the Devils’ league-best penalty kill percentage of 94.7 is the fact that the team plays so aggressively with a man down, not just in its scheme, which emphasizes forechecking to pressure the puck and cause turnovers, but also in its personnel. Rather than send out defensive-minded grinder-type players to kill penalties, the Devils counter with some of their top players — guys like Zach Parise, Dainius Zubrus, and Patrik Elias, all of whom are averaging more than two minutes of shorthanded time on ice per game. Mark Everson makes the compelling argument in the New York Post, however, that the system might be wearing the team out, pointing to their ugly third-period goal differentials.
- After an Edmonton Sun writer waxed historical about the Oilers loss to Carolina last night (“Canes stunning assault on Rexall Place and the Oilers comes on the 70th anniversary of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbour”) I tried thinking of other strange day-of-infamy comparisons. But I just keep getting stuck on a mental image of Dustin Penner as a slow-moving white Bronco.
- I feel like I now know more about Chris Higgins than I may have wanted to.
- For anyone interested in discussion of the recently announced Canadian and U.S. World Junior Championship team rosters, The Hockey News‘ Ryan Kennedy and The United States of Hockey’s Chris Peters have got you covered.
- Former junior hockey coach Graham James plead guilty yesterday to charges of sexual abuse against Theo Fleury, who went public with the details of his molestation in his 2009 book Playing with Fire, and another unnamed former player. Given the nature of his crimes and the Canadian criminal justice system, James’ punishment has been disturbingly light. (Previously, James had served 3½ years in prison for abusing former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy upwards of 350 times, crimes for which he was pardoned in 2007.) He will remain out on bail until his sentencing in February; an article in the Winnipeg Free Press raised the grim possibility that James could avoid additional jail time. Charges of abuse against a third man, Greg Gilhooly, were stayed, with Gilhooly’s blessing, in order to expedite James’ conviction.9
Chirping Like a Champ: The Week’s Best Mouthing Off
Remember in high school and college when two of your friends would put up cryptic but coordinating away messages on AIM and you’d get all paranoid that they were maybe referring to you? That’s basically the relationship right now between the Maple Leafs’ coach/GM and the Toronto media. Friday evening, Leafs coach Ron Wilson was asked who would be starting in goal Saturday: no. 1 netminder James Reimer, newly recovered from an “upper body injury”10 or backup Jonas Gustavsson, who had been playing in his absence? “I’m not being definitive on anything, but we’ve told Gustavsson that he’s going to be playing tomorrow,” Wilson said.
The next day Reimer was in net against Boston.
The media was not at all happy with this, particularly when they asked Wilson when the decision had been made and he responded, “Three days ago.” Missives were penned. LIES! FILTHY LIES! The next day, Wilson tweeted: “Favorite movies: Liar,Liar; The Invention of Lying; Big Fat Liar. HaHa!” Later, GM Brian Burke weighed in: “I love the quote about liars in sports. Many gainfully employed in the media.” Tip-top trolling, gentlemen.
Look, the NBA has their wine-and-paddle-playing drunk dials; the NHL has a coach and a GM whom you can just imagine sitting in their respective offices and occasionally knocking on the wall separating them. “Hey, did you see what I tweeted?” “Ha ha! I’m gonna write something, too.” And you can work yourself into a tizzy about the importance of truth-telling in these situations, you can maybe find a sensible middle ground, or you can sit back and giggle a bit about the wonder of it all.11
Me, I’m going to choose to believe that Ron Wilson was making a scholarly point about the dangers of ambiguous pronouns, and leave it at that.
A new commercial,
A new “Good Old Hockey Game,”
Hey! It’s Will Arnett!
Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Katie Baker:
The NHL Coaching Carousel Spins Off Its Axis
Broadway Blueshirts Are Becoming Must-See Theatre
Manning-ology, Lady Byng, and the Pitfalls of Great Free Tickets
The Best Team in the NHL
Wedded Blitz! The October Marriage Season
The Rise of the Female Distance Runner
The Horrible Habs
Coming to Grips With the Winter Classic
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