Last weekend, Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins blindsided Boston Bruins star Marc Savard with a hit to his head while both were trailing the play into the offensive zone. Savard suffered a serious concussion that will likely end his season. Cooke suffered nothing. The National Hockey League general managers quickly agreed this week to a new rule that would have made Cooke's savagery a violation of the playing rules of the game. However, the rule only takes effect next season.
Violence and organized hockey have always had a tempestuous relationship. A pastime born on the frozen ponds of Canada, ice hockey was derived from English field hockey and the Irish game of hurling. James G. Creighton formulated the rules of modern ice hockey while studying engineering at McGill University, and in 1875 the first game was played under Creighton's rules at Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal. According to a wire dispatch from the Kingston Daily British Whig, the game ended in a brawl: "Shins and heads were battered, benches smashed, and the lady spectators fled in confusion."
The men of Canada are generally appreciated for their calm demeanor and their ability to survive in a sometimes harsh physical environment. A remarkable change occurs, however, when it comes to a brutal body check delivered in a timely manner to an opposing player who has touched the puck. Fights break out during the normal course of a hockey game, part of a passionate, masculine culture of aggression that lies at the core of the sport. The game is stopped while the referees allow the fisticuffs to proceed. The only saving grace is that while skating on ice players normally lack sufficient traction to do too much damage to an opponent.
Unsure of the sport's ability to draw fans outside of Canada, the League has always been committed to a bit of mixed martial arts. The fans have responded positively to the prospect of going to see a boxing match (where a hockey game might break out). Fans will scream for blood and be pleased to witness a good bout. Color commentators and play-by-play men on television will analyze the fight as if it was an essential part of the game. Maybe it is.
What is it about sports violence that is so attractive? Some would offer this negative judgment: it simply appeals to our baser instincts, to the worst in human nature. Face it -- that is just the way we are, even if it is not the way we should want to be in some hypothetical universe. Take Grand Theft Auto and put it on ice as part of our visual culture.
Sports violence appeals to our sense of contingency. We all are here on this earth for a while, facing an inevitable end. There is something about the human spirit that wants to face down mortality. We do that by allowing (and encouraging) our appointed surrogates to face danger on our behalf and survive.
An appetite for violence in sports is something we learn socially. The internet is filled with videos of eight-year-olds fighting on the ice, copying what they see on TV, not just in sports but across the spectrum of cable channels. Studies establish that a child will witness 40,000 fake murders on television by the time he is 18.
While we can change hockey, if we want to, or even change television programming -- I am told they now sell TV sets with an on-off switch that can be turned off -- we will have more difficulty changing people. If we are attracted to sports violence and willing to pay for it, someone will be willing to sell it to us. There are some who find exhilaration in watching violence, even euphoria. This is especially the case with men and boys who find in watching violence an opportunity to confirm their gender role. Men must be fearless, and boys have to prepare for that role.
The National Hockey League's decision not to punish Cooke for his assault was explained by Colin Campbell, who is in charge of discipline for the NHL. He told the press that his hands were tied. While the injury to Savard was regrettable, Cooke's hit was "legal." "Matt Cooke did not jump, and did not do anything that we found illegal in his actions even though, again, you don't like what happened." Cooke was a recidivist; he has been suspended by the League twice in the last year.
The NHL's hypocrisy is not only blatant, it is also dangerous. With less than 20 games left in the regular season, cheap shot artists how have free range. I hope the Bruins do not take next Thursday's visit of the Penguins to the Garden as the opportunity for revenge, but the NHL has set up the confrontation by its failure to take action. Sydney Crosby should go visit Halifax. If there is a confrontation, the fault lies with the NHL.