Essay: Hockey and Masculinity Violence

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Violence in Hockey

This past weekend, hockey fans were treated to two of the biggest hits of this past season. In one, Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins slammed Maple Leaf Mike van Ryn through a pane of glass. The hit electrified fans and has received a hundred thousand plays in YouTube since. The other hit saw Carolina forward Brandon Sutter crushed, with his head down, on a hit from Islander Doug Weight. That hit was a carbon copy of the hit Steve Moore put on Markus Naslund in 2004, starting in motion one of the worst episodes of hockey violence. In retribution for that hit, Naslund's friend and teammate Todd Bertuzzi attacked Moore in a game a few weeks later, effectively ending the Colorado forward's career. Most hockey fans and observers were stunned at Bertuzzi's actions. The media had a field day, and Canadians wrung their hands about hockey violence, as they do following every particularly gruesome incident. Yet, there were others who defended Bertuzzi's actions, claiming that it was part of "the code." Four and a half years later, that code is still regularly enforced in hockey. Indeed, immediately following the hit, Weight was jumped by several Carolina players. The code is often cited as a reason behind violence in hockey. Where the code came from, and why it has become so entrenched in the culture of hockey, has not been firmly established. This essay intends to examine the culture of violence in hockey, and attempt to ascertain its roots causes. The conclusion will attempt to offer some insight as to the possible solutions, if any, that are needed to contain the culture of violence.

The Roots of Hockey's Violent Culture

Hockey has always been a tough sport. The Broad Street Bullies were feared and revered in the 1970s, and are now the stuff of legend. Bobby Baun winning the Stanley Cup with a broken leg is forever etched into Maple Leaf lore. Goalies in the early 20th century did not wear face masks. Only football, a sport so brutal the NCAA only allowed it to continue after several major modifications to reduce the number of maimings, can match the toughness in hockey. Lorenz and Osborne (2006) outline the rivalry between the Ottawa Silver Seven and Montreal Wanderers in 1907. This rivalry was described at the time as "brutal butchery." In one game, three members of the Silver Seven received assault charges stemming from stick infractions. Just years earlier, two players had been tried for manslaughter in separate incidents resulting from deaths caused by sticks to the head. Both players were acquitted on the grounds that the violence was part of hockey's nature (ibid.)

That this level of violence was not viewed as unusual forces scholars to look further back, to understand how this attitude came to pass. Today's sports had their genesis either in ancient sport or in the parlour games of the rural United Kingdom. The ancient games may have been based on war, but the more modern games would evolve into soccer, tennis, cricket, and other relatively benign sports. An analysis of every modern sport shows that each places emphasis on certain skills. Contact sports invariably place a degree of emphasis on physical toughness. Sport and contact sport in particular, emerged as a means to societal control. It was part of the solution to the greater societal problem of finding a balance between pleasure and restraint (Elias).

When these sports were in their early stages, this toughness appealed to young men, partly as an aggression release but also in part as a means to better rivals. Whether this bettering of rivals was born out of courtship ritual or of warfare, it enhanced the level of competition, and other men in the crowd responded favorably. One key difference between football and hockey, though, was that while football was so brutal as to nearly be banned, hockey was never subjected to that. The sport of football was redesigned by the NCAA to eliminate the worst of the brutality. The game is still violent, but the aggression is almost totally controlled. Hockey never underwent this process and as a result much of the sport's violence remains uncontrolled.

There were, of course, referees. But they were of limited effectiveness. The penalty system in hockey has never treated severe violence with equal severity, especially in the era when players were not well-padded. The referees could only offer limited protection. A team could gain significant advantage by injuring the other team's star player. The legal system had been proven to offer no remedy. Thus, the code was born. Players learned that the only protection they would receive was that which they could offer themselves.

Even if we accept the need for a code, this does not address the issue of why the violence is there in the first place. If violent sport emerged as a mechanism to help achieve social order, the balance between pleasure and restraint as Elias suggests, we must ask where the violence comes from in the first place. Elias' theories were based on his examination of fox-hunting, a sportlike pastime that predates modern sport. This is the theory that violence in sport derives from catharsis. If the newly industrialized societies were increasingly unable - whether legally, socially or structurally - to release their aggressions as they had when they lived in the country, they needed some form of outlet conducive to city living. Gruneau suggests that amateur sport, in the 19th century definition, provided a "forum for a culture of modernity that reconciled robust 'manly' physicality with respectability and restraint." Thus, sport was born and many of the more aggressive individuals in society had a natural predilection for physical sport.

Michael D. Smith considers an alternate hypothesis, that violence begets violence (Gruneau & Whitson, 1993). His view is that hockey violence exists because hockey creates the environment for violence. Violent behavior amongst players and amongst fans breeds itself. From this he drew a correlation between hockey violence and violence among hockey fans. That correlation is far-fetched, and Smith's arguments regard society and violence in the broadest terms, straw men compared with a genuine examination of hockey violence. Hockey violence may indeed be fuelled by the fans' desire for violent spectacle.

Even today, hockey fans are split amongst two distinct camps. One camp disapproves of the on-ice violence, and the other is attracted to the sport because of it. Invariably, a fight on the ice draws cheers from the crowd. Websites such as HockeyFights.com post videos and fight commentary. Fans rate players for their pugilistic skills, even going so far as to class them by weight as one would a boxer. Don Cherry pontificates to a rabid fan base about the need for toughness and pugilism. Yet, the relationship between fight fans and on-ice combatants is not so simple. Often, a player will start a fight with another player specifically to get a rise out of the fans, to give his team a moral boost. There is a symbiotic relationship at work between the fans who want to see fights and the players who want to fuel the fans.

Yet while hockey fans and industry citizens in other parts of the world hold fighting as the example of hockey violence, Canadians uniquely do not view the issue that way. Indeed, a report on hockey violence commissioned for the British Columbia government argues that fighting is not the problem in hockey, but rather "the checking from behind, illegal stickwork and general abuse..." (Pascall, 2000). This is evidence that in Canadian culture, some forms of violence are considered acceptable in hockey.

In an NHL comprised almost exclusively of Canadians in the 1950s and 1960s, the code arose. While even today the code has no universally-agreed-upon definition, the code is essentially the system by which the players police themselves. In the 21st century, the code is being challenged as the Canadian content in the NHL becomes diluted, but it still remains. The code still allows for fighting, and in many cases encourages it. The code still vilifies other forms of violence in the game.

Other Canadian aspects of hockey include valuing the outlaw player, and a lack of respect for officials. This latter aspect is certainly a cause of the code, and a major inhibitor with respect to removing violence from the game.

In minor hockey, attrition rates for officials have been estimated at 30% per year (Pascall, 2000), with most resignations due to abuse. Part of the reason for the abuse is poor officiating. Officials in British Columbia, for example, receive a one-day seminar at the beginning of the hockey season, covering basic rules. Concepts employed at the professional level, such as maintaining game flow and aggression management, are unheard of. There is also little oversight, given the limited resources that many minor hockey associations have to dedicate to officiating. The result is that players grow up learning that referees are not worthy of respect. When this is reinforced by… [END OF PREVIEW]

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