Sunday, March 4, 2007

Understanding Hockey Fights

A couple of weeks ago, there was huge fight during a National Hockey League game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators. If you have not seen the fight, click on this link . If you have seen the fight, click on this link because if you watched it once, you can’t help but watch it again.

Before I continue commenting on this, let me take a moment for some background information. In case you had forgotten, and by the TV ratings many of you have, there is a professional league in North America for the sport of “hockey”, a sport that combines the beauty, speed and grace of figure skating and monster truck shows.

Periodically during contests in this league, an altercation will arise. The cause of these altercations varies. It might be that one player says something to another player who takes offense to said comment. This is a remarkable occurrence in that seldom do two players speak the same language in this league. And even if they do, the chances that a comment can be properly understood when spoken through a toothless mouth are remote at best.

Another reason for a disagreement to arise is when one player makes excessive physical contact with another player, usually resulting in that player losing a significant amount of blood. A third party will then intervene on behalf of the bloodied player and proceed to extract the same amount of blood from the offending party. This is where hockey players get their credo “a pint for a pint”. I know many of you thought that was a beer reference, but that is only in the world of rugby.

And yet another reason for a massive display of physical harm against another human (or “fight”) is the time-honored tradition of “sending a message”. Guglielmo Marconi had his “telegraph”, Thomas Edison had his “telephone”, and Gordie Howe had his “three uppercuts to the jaw”. All have the similar purpose of transmitting a message from one person to another. In the case of hockey, that message is usually “we will not let you get away with braining our goalie.”

This later reason was the casus belli for the Senator/Sabres fracas. It achieved the distinction of official “fracas-dom” when the two goalies threw off their masks and proceeded to re-enact the famous “Dynasty” Alexis Colby v. Krystle Carrington cat fight, including going the extra mile for authenticity by wearing oversized shoulder pads. It was one of those special fights that happens two to three times a year and gets the purist of the sport to speak glowingly of the “good old days.” (translation: when only Canadians played the game)

But you don’t hear anyone saying this was a black eye on the sport (pun intended). You don’t have any commentators going off that “thug life” has taken over the sport. No pundits cry out that these kinds of fights are ruining the sport. Dr Phil has not talked about the toll this has taken on the youngest viewers of hockey, which I believe to be 52 year olds.

Now, if this was a basketball game or football game, oh lord you would not be able to keep Dan Patrick’s pie hole closed long enough to get a word in edge wise. Bob Costas would openly weep about how this is not what sports is supposed to be about. You would get blame spread evenly from rap music, to video games, to not enough mothers are breast feeding their children.

So why is there such great outrage when basketball players throw punches? Mind you, these punches connect as frequently as Shaq hits a free throw. On the contrary, hockey fights, in which people actually get hit, barely measure on the moral outrage barometer.

Oh sure, perhaps our indignation at predominantly African-Americans in violent situations while simultaneously ignoring predominantly Caucasian Euro-Americans in far more violent circumstances belies a not to subtle undercurrent of racism that our society has yet to exorcise itself of after 400 years. That’s what the so-called social-economic experts (i.e. pessimists) might say, but I like to think of myself, as most Americans do, as an ill-informed optimist.

And the ill-informed optimist in me believes we embrace hockey fights because it is a celebration of our Neanderthal past. Just like we have Civil War re-enactments, these hockey players act out, with great historical accuracy, the common exchanges between our earliest ancestors, even using wooden clubs just like they did. Watching someone get beaten down into bloody submission harkens us back to a time when life was much simpler. You hunted, you gathered, and then you died. No meetings to attend. No tax returns to file. No having to decide every four years who will lead the free world. Actually most of us don’t bother with that last thing, but you get the point.

So go back to the link above and watch it again, and again, and again. I promise you’ll get swept up in the nostalgia…and you’ll start craving mammoth meat.

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