Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Wide World of Sports, Part II...

From the Gridiron, we jump to the Ice, and start talking about a real sport: hockey. I say 'real sport' because, well, let's look at all the others; baseball is pretty much 2-3 hours of watching two guys play catch with a lot of inactivity in between. It's a sport that celebrates the .300 hitter, which means it really celebrates the guy who's failed 70% of the time. Anyone who remarks, like many did a decade ago about the Clutch-and-Grab era of hockey, that they'd rather watch a one-hit shutout -- i.e. a game with no action -- than a 1-0 hockey game --with lots of checking, and perhaps a fight or two -- needs psychological help.

Golf? I believe it was Mark Twain who said that "Golf is a pleasant afternoon's walk, interrupted". Any 'sport' that you play in business casual, requires a servant to lug your gear about and involves a motorized cart, is hardly a competition. If there was a goalie to keep the ball out of the little hole, you might have an argument about whether it's a sport. Quite frankly, if your game doesn't involve defense, and is mostly played by overweight white guys, and ends with a snort and a steak in the Clubhouse, it's not a sport; it's more like an expensive hobby.

Basketball? Does anyone actually play basketball anymore, or has it has it simply degenerated into an exhibition where guys take a 10-yard run up to a basket before they make a 6' leap to 'slam dunk'? Back when I played basketball you needed an outside jumper, needed to know how to play defense, we didn't take time outs every five seconds, and a wrist-slap or an elbow to the chest wasn't a 'flagrant foul' that put you on the DL for three months; it was 'just the price you paid' for going to the basket.

NASCAR. What great thrills: watching 40 guys make left turns at ridiculously high speed, praying for an accident to break up the monotony and get your juices flowing. Really, if you need a million-dollar-fuel-injected machine to compete, it's not really a sport, is it? Football? Five minutes of nothing leading up to six seconds of action over the span of three hours, and in the end, it's usually the least-involved guy on the field -- the fucking kicker -- who decides it all. Soccer, a game I've actually excelled at, is polo without the horses and where the idea at the professional level seems to be to play for a tie. MMA is not a sport: that's human cockfighting, and if I want to see that there's half-a-dozen Irish Pubs within walking distance. No Pay-Per-View fees, either.

No, hockey is the only real sport, so far as I'm concerned.

Which is why I get so pissed off when people who know nothing about the game start pontificating about some of the more rugged aspects of the game, like Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty, the fights between the Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars, or the Brawl at the Nassau Coliseum this past February. Much like football (that is when the players are actually involved in a play, and not standing around between plays or otherwise making fools of themselves with all the sack and touchdown dances) is a contact sport; it involves actual physical contact, often violent physical contact, between players.

People who don't understand the nature of hockey 'violence' simply don't understand the nature of the game, but they somehow feel qualified to pontificate about it's more brutal aspects. For those of you who don't understand hockey, and the reasons why there are fights, and occasionally, a horrendous accident in which someone is hurt, here's your list of reasons why it all happens:

1. Take 12 full-grown men, and put them in a fishbowl.
2. Arm them with deadly weapons, i.e. a stick, and a set of razor-sharp skates.
3. Make them play on ice.
4. Encourage them to reach speeds of 25-30 MPH, and run into each other, or smash each other against the boards and glass (it actually hurts MORE to get hit in open ice than it does along the boards; the boards and glass in most rinks actually give some under stress, and act like a spring).
5. Make them chase an object (The Puck) which is made of solid, vulcanized rubber, which has been frozen solid and can be propelled at speeds exceeding 100 MPH, and who's shape makes it's flight characteristics wholly unpredictable.

Tempers are bound to flare in that sort of situation. If you don't give players the opportunity to vent their frustrations (i.e. fight), they will soon start doing stupid, and dangerous, things: like cutting each other with their skates, clubbing each other with their sticks, or throwing elbows at each other's heads. Fighting in hockey is a safety valve; giving players the opportunity to pummel each other prevents some of the more unattractive aspects of human nature from rising to the surface. In all actuality, there are very few injuries that come about as a result of a hockey fight, primarily because it is difficult to get enough leverage on ice skates to throw a knockout punch.

There is also an etiquette to a hockey fight; you never just attack someone. You issue a challenge, and the etiquette requires that your would-be opponent oblige you. If he doesn't, there's usually someone else who will pick up the gauntlet, and thus, the overall violence is kept at a manageable level. It's not unusual to see two players punch each other silly, and then pat one another on the backside afterwards, or a fight to breakup when both combatants tire themselves out and agree to separate. Generally, fights between players aren't personal matters: they are usually a reaction to something which has occurred on the ice, and that once someone has been given the opportunity to vent their frustrations, the whole thing is pretty much over. There is, however, a big difference between a system of violence with rules and a context, and another system in which the players cross a line and enter the realm of the Truly Stupid.

By the way, the Golden Age of Hockey -- generally considered to be the 1940's to the 1980's -- saw far more gratuitous violence that you see in the modern NHL. It was not uncommon in the days when the league did ban fighting, to see players get carved up with sticks, or have their limbs skated over. One of the greatest players in the history of the sport has a dubious honor named after him; a player is said to have scored a 'Gordie Howe Hat Trick' if during the course of a game he has tallied a goal, an assist -- and a fight. But, I digress...

The Realm of the Truly Stupid nowadays involves players going after each other's heads. There's a variety of reasons why this happens. The first set of reasons are cultural: in the Old Days a player was taught to protect himself on the ice at all times, because you never could tell where a hit might come from (there was far more hitting 20-30 years ago then than there is now). In the modern game, there are two referees, more rules about what you can/can't do with a stick, what constitutes a legal/illegal check, and a mindset that puts a premium on Power Plays, so that the players often depend upon the officials and the sometimes-esoteric nuances of the rulebook to defend them rather than relying on their wits; they've abrogated their responsibility to protect themselves.

The second cultural flaw in modern hockey is the idea of The Pest. This type of player is also known as 'The Lunchbucket Guy', 'The Sandpaper', 'The Antagonizer', 'The Energy Guy' (not to be confused with The Goon or Enforcer, who's job is to protect his teammates) and his is a specialized skill within the confines of hockey. His job to go out onto the ice and be a total jerk. This role has been immortalized by both the hockey media and by a generation of coaches who spend more time studying Sports Psychology than they do hockey. The idea is take advantage of the fact that in the normal course of the game raw emotion is sometimes provoked. The Sandpaper Guy is supposed to go out and deliberately provoke those raw, emotional, responses from other players, and thus, take a punch or a slash and draw penalties against an opponent. It's a specialized skill; you need to be part bully, part psychologist, part asshole.

As a tactic, it's brilliant. However, when a kid has come up through the hockey ranks convinced that the only way he can 'make it' in the NHL is to be a borderline-dirty player, it becomes a hard habit to break. He's trained and encouraged to start trouble, and depending upon his level of maturity he may not know when to stop. And when you can't draw that flash of emotion with a simple slash across the ankles, or a push, because the other players have become more disciplined and taught not to take penalties, you have to take greater, and more drastic action, to justify your existence. The borderline-dirty play now becomes your bread and butter.

There's also a Code of Machismo in the game, much like the Samurai Code, which states that any injury that doesn't result in a jagged bone sticking out of a bloody hole in a limb, or having a vital organ knocked out of your body, is something you should just 'skate off'. Failure to live up to this code lessens a player's reputation for toughness amongst his peers, and one school of thought says that players who succumb 'too easily' to injuries make themselves targets. Hockey players routinely play with broken bones, stitches in their face, snapped-off-at-the-base teeth, black eyes, broken noses or dislocated joints quickly snapped back into place by crack medical and training staffs; they're simply stitched up, shot full of Novocaine, and sent back out on the ice. In fact, they often beg to be returned to play as quickly as possible by the medical staff. Part of this Machismo Code states that short of being knocked unconscious, you should make every effort to play with a severe head injury so as to not be labeled a pansy.

Then there are the circumstances of the modern game to consider when it comes to injury and head trauma; it's faster than it's ever been before, the players are bigger than ever before (there are, to my knowledge, approximately 20 players that I can name off the top of my head who are over 6' 4", and/or weigh in excess of 230 pounds), and when you take into consideration some of the changes in the last two decades (detachable nets, equipment improvements, removal of the red line, the stupid trapezoid, seamless glass, the inability to slow down a forechecker, the two-ref system, the instigator penalty, and the return of the Little Man to the game) what's amazing is not that every so often there's a fight, or someone gets run into a partition, but that someone doesn't get killed more often.

The problems with the Chara/Pacioretty hit break down like this:

1. Pacioretty took a bad path to the puck. Instead of using the other 80' of the ice that he could have to skate around Chara, he tried to squeeze himself between Chara and the boards. He did this because he's been trained to know that even if he doesn't get to the puck, he's more than likely to draw a penalty on Chara for obstructing his progress. Twenty years ago, Paciroetty would have taken a different route to the puck, but nowadays the players are looking for penalties (Sabermetrics has invaded hockey! Arrrgh!). If you don't know anything about hockey, learn that much, at least; sometimes, the quickest way to the puck is also the quickest way to get your head smashed in.

2. Chara is 6' 9" -- without skates -- and about 260 pounds. Pacioretty is 6' 2" and is listed at 203 pounds. If Chara puts his arms up to take or to deliver a hit, he's pretty much going to hit everyone on the ice in the head. Pacioretty has compounded his original mistake (different route to the puck)by trying to out-muscle a player 7 inches taller and 57 pounds heavier. That's like trying to stop a runaway tractor trailer with a Jack Russel Terrier...only less funny.

3. Neither player appears to be aware of their position on the ice. The area around the benches is perhaps the most dangerous spot on the entire ice surface, other than being directly in front of the goals. Nothing good ever happens there; players collide with one another during line changes, players get hit and propelled into the benches, players get hit and have the bench gates suddenly open on them as they're falling, sometimes a player gets run into an open bench gate with hip or head, and now in this case, Pacioretty gets himself run into the partition that separates the two benches and provides a spot for a color commentator and some photographers to get a better look at the action. If you took that little booth out, it doesn't do much good, because you still have to keep the teams physically separated when not on the ice, and there would still be a partition there.

The real issue the NHL has to deal with is not a bunch of guys fighting, or someone getting hurt as the result of the natural flow of the game; it's the douchebag who goes around hitting people from behind, or taking a liberty with another player in a vulnerable position because 'it's his job' to 'stir things up'.

Players like (each has video linked) Sean Avery, Matt Cooke, Trevor Gillies have serious issues with the concepts of respect and boundaries. They do what they do because it's what they get paid to do, and because that's how they got to into the league and how they stay there, and they give no thought to how this affects everyone they come into contact with. In the case of Avery, the league actually -- in a backhanded way which I think is almost unconscious -- protects them. Mario Lemieux (owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins) can complain all he wants about the thuggery in the Modern Game, but I don't recall him being so critical when Jay Caufield (and others) was there to fight his battles, and he has one of the worst offenders (Cooke) on his payroll. His real issue is that his multi-million-dollar Golden Boy (Sidney Crosby) isn't on the ice because of an accidental hits, and because the Islanders beat the snot out of his team (which has a roster of fighters of it's own that is quite formidable) one night in February.

This issue isn't going to be resolved by a public outcry over 'gratuitous violence'; it's going to be corrected when the Matt Cookes, Trevor Gilles' and Sean Averys of the world lose their jobs. What they do is NOT hockey. The public which cries about this level of violence is the same public which mostly knows nothing about hockey, made NASCAR and MMA two of the fastest-growing 'sports', and which routinely looks the other way when yet another NFL player is hauled off on domestic violence or murder charges. Even the causal hockey fan loves a good fight or a hard bodycheck, and so long as everything is legal, the combatants are willing, and the fisticuffs are a result of the natural flow of the game, it's all to the better.

What you need to do is not condemn the sport, only the assholes who don't play it properly. Hockey players will sort this out themselves, and it will, unfortunately, require that certain guys get beatings on the ice. That's the purpose of a hockey fight, after all: to let so-and-so know he can't get away with what he's just tried to get away with. Once a guy takes enough knuckles to the head, he starts to get the message and the stupidity stops. If the league wasn't so worried about it's image, it would take out the stupid Instigator Rule and not have the officials rush to break up skirmishes, and let the players police themselves; whenever the league tries to clamp down on fighting, we get more of this sort of thing.

And that 'image' they were trying to clean up by clamping down on fighting gets tarnished because we've taken the violence to a whole 'nuther level. And morons who know nothing tsk-tsk and tut-tut, start their preaching... and then go and watch WWE when no one is looking.

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