The real danger in hockey

Colby Cosh on chunkheads, shot blockers, rhetoric and reality

Content image

Ryan Remiorz / CP

Ryan Remiorz / CP

Hockey has started up again, and it goes without saying that the debate over fighting in hockey was not long in following. We were only a couple of hours into the big Habs-Leafs season opener when professional chunkheads Colton Orr and George Parros locked up for their second bout of the night. As it was winding down, the Leafs’ Orr fell and pulled Parros to the ice face-first by the jersey, causing millions to wince and the debonair Princeton graduate to lose consciousness briefly. Medics, acting out of their usual abundance of caution, carried off the bloodied Parros on a spine board.

Even as he was being treated, the calls for a permanent end to hockey fighting began to ascend to heaven. One doubts whether Parros privately welcomed this touching concern, since the most immediate effect of such a measure would be to run George Parros out of the National Hockey League at Mach 1. You could not help feeling that some people were hoping it might happen overnight while he was indisposed. “Sorry, George. We got together and decided to let your career die with dignity.”

This is not an argument in favour of fighting in hockey, but it was curious that the debate sparked up after an injury that was somewhat incidental to the fight itself. Moreover, nobody much felt the need to wait and find out whether Parros was seriously hurt, which he wasn’t, by hockey standards.

The rhetoric that follows ugly hockey fights descends immediately onto Twitter nowadays, seemingly of its own accord. You have obnoxious parents wondering indignantly how they will explain a fight to their saintly hockey-loving children, who have apparently never seen anyone bopped on the nose in a sandbox with a Tonka truck. You have the purists shouting that fighting is “not part of the game,” as if the “game” were a machine to be optimized, to be made as homogenous as possible as a matter of efficiency. You have the prophets of doom, warning that any day now an NHL fight will kill somebody: perhaps that will happen as soon as this sentence is printed, but it would be a first, and the league’s 98th birthday is right around the corner.

What strikes me is that almost all the objections to fighting apply equally well to the modern practice of blocking shots in the defensive zone with one’s body—a feature of the game that goes back 20 or 25 years, rather than 150, and thus cannot be defended as inherent to the play of hockey. Shot-blocking has already ended the careers of a few decent NHL players. Looking over the great pyramid of hockey, descending from the pros to recreational leagues, hard shots to the throat or the thorax have surely caused more deaths than fights ever did.

A recent study showed that in the current NHL pucks cause about as many concussions as fights, though that ratio will probably change as the visor-free players gradually disappear. That is without considering the more frightening injuries that pucks do cause and that fights by and large do not. If I had to bet on the cause of the next on-ice death in the NHL I would certainly back an ill-timed or unlucky shot block over a fight, and I would not need even odds.

Shot-blocking has its specialists, just as fist-fighting does. When we are denouncing fighting, we argue that the George Parroses of hockey must be forced to quit for their own sake—spared the lucrative temptation to risk life and health in the name of entertainment and vicious machismo. Shot-blocking, much more obviously than fighting, is not something a sane person would do for fun.

But how are the death-defying shot-blockers regarded? It should suffice to point out that the official league statistics do not tabulate the fights the game “tolerates,” but do count blocked shots. Commentators, even coaches and general managers, cite the figures and praise the league leaders. Maclean’s corporate sibling Sportsnet once included shot-blocking as part of a slapped-together “Grit Index” in a digital graphic.

Even the kind of relatively evolved hockey commentator who tut-tuts disapprovingly at an honest scrap will revert to old-timey type when some courageous plug stops a Chara one-timer with a face or ankle or scrotum. It is “taking one for the team,” which is precisely the unhappy, self-sacrificing behavioral pretext that is unanimously decried when Parros gets an owie. How can manly bravado be an ugly vestige of Neanderthality in one context and a stony old Roman virtue in another? Try explaining that one to your kids.