Since the origins of the game we call hockey, physicality has been important to the fans, and important to the players. Proving courage to your teammates, but more significantly to oneself was practically a rite of passage on the ice. With the game changing, and skilled players dominating the sport, violence and brutality have seemingly lost their place on the rink. The purpose of this paper will be to highlight the good, the bad and the ugly sides of violence in hockey, and to determine its relevance in the modern game.
Although frequently thought of in a negative manner, there are many positive connotations associated with violence and physicality in the realm of hockey. In the early days, these traits developed a culture as well as an identity for the sport, and helped popularize the game. Long before a salary or career could be realized in hockey, the game was played for sport and communal pride. Helmets were yet a figment of the imagination, and players routinely risked their well being stepping onto the ice. Shot blocking, slashing, fighting, and roughing were all part of proving courage to yourself, your teammates, and the opposition. This type of play also proved to attract a lot of the crowds and fanfare.
When the First World War commenced, the fierceness and comradery aspects of the game had mentally prepared the enlisting players. Players found that many on-ice values were translatable to the battlefield and vice versa. The often-violent game of hockey was applauded by many who saw it as a reliable and necessary guardian of masculinity and military preparedness. Upon returning, Canadian soldiers felt that the physicality of hockey fulfilled a void in their life. Some still haunted from war, played to feel alive. Others, who returned yearning purpose and missing the war, played for the comradery of the battle. Playing hockey re-acclimatized players to their communities, and built social structure for veterans. Sometimes the nature of the game, as well as the nature of the players, resulted in fighting, delivering hits, and relieving all of life’s stresses on the ice. In the grand scheme of things, with no one dying or being mortally wounded, the rugged game was a positive outlet for these soldiers and the rest of society.
From an economic perspective, violence contributed greatly to the commercialization of hockey. The television broadcast deals, major revenues, and overall popularity of leagues such as the NHL can be attributed in part to the physicality of the game. Historically, people have watched hockey for a few simple reasons, to appreciate the craft, cheer for a team, and get the chance to see grown men throw hands. A lot of energy and audience engagement would stem from contact, and fans would rise to their feet if a fight were instigated. An enticing game with the added bonus of violence sold more tickets and sold the sport to many different markets, allowing the league to expand. As an old hockey saying states, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” Gordie Howe, a Canadian icon and one of the most beloved players in history, coined what has become known as the “Gordie Howe hat-trick”, where a player scores a goal, gets an assist, and participates in a fight in the same game. Fighting and violence were celebrated aspects of hockey, and contributed to the overall mythology and culture of the sport.
The following is an excerpt from an article, detailing the famously chippy Penguins/Flyers 2012 playoff matchup, and the impact of violence on that postseason’s TV ratings. “With growing concern regarding brain traumas and concussive impacts in the game, amplified by Sidney Crosby’s persisting issues as well as the high-profile deaths of three enforcers this past summer – one may think that the rough stuff displayed these playoffs would be detrimental for the health of the game, leading fans to turn off and tune out. That has not been in the case; along with the violence, playoff ratings are up – way up. Game three between the Flyers and Penguins, for example, notched a 2.3 overnight rating – a 77% increase from comparable coverage in 2011, and NBC’s best ratings for a playoff game since 2006. Hockey fans seem to be inherently drawn to violence. The Western Conference clash, in the same round of the playoffs between the Predators/Red Wings proved no different. The NHL fined Shea Weber a staggering $2,500 for bouncing Henrik Zetterberg’s melon like a basketball off the glass. The Predators bench boss Barry Trotz publicly praised the play, and the team’s promotions department released a celebratory head-smash video and dubbed the practice “Webbering.” This goes to show that even in recent years, violence attracts the largest audiences and earns praise from the fans, coaches, and players. There is no arguing it has aided the growth of the game, but at this stage violence in hockey could be deemed a primitive tactic that is hindering further development.
As significant as it is to the history of the sport, there are many negative impacts of violence in hockey. Repeated physical trauma takes its toll on players, both mentally and physically. Torn ligaments, brain trauma, nerve damage, and nagging injuries plague many current and former players. This affects ones physical state, but also their mental state. Quality of life changes when in constant pain or discomfort. Concussions have always existed, but until recently were only diagnosed in the most serious of cases. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a sports-related concussion as a “traumatic brain injury, caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that can change the way your brain normally works.” We are now aware that one does not need to pass out to have a concussion. In generations prior, this was not the case. Even if players were knocked out, or they were diagnosed with a concussion, most would be back on the ice within a week, and in rare cases they would even come back into the same game. The CDC recommends that if, after a bump to the head or a jolt, there are symptoms of confusion, complaints of a headache or dizziness, vomiting or blurry vision, the affected player needs to be removed from the game and taken for immediate medical attention.
Evaluating and monitoring injuries of this nature has become one of the biggest topics surrounding contact sports. Unfortunately, the speed and conduct of the game make it near impossible to prevent these types of injuries. That being said, steps in the right direction have been taken in terms of diagnosing and handling these head traumas, with computerized tests and black room sessions. The age at which players are exposed to the potential of these injuries is another conflict of interest. A 2011 study conducted by the “Canadian Medical Association Journal” noted the growing issue around concussions in youth hockey, and stated that the greatest number of injuries are related to body checking. Receiving blows to the head is not good at any age, but is especially dangerous when children are involved. Young athletes who play contact sports expose themselves to significantly greater risks of developing CTE. Published studies suggest that head traumas sustained before age 12 are associated with worse outcomes than those sustained after the age of 12. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The disease releases excess protein called Tau, which slowly forms masses that spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. The disease has been observed in teenagers as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally start appearing until years after the onset of head impacts. Sustaining concussions at a young age is bad not only because the brain is developing, but also because it leaves plenty of time to receive more concussive blows. Stacking (multiple) concussions is one of the leading causes of permanent brain damage. The physical and mental toll on the body is the true bad side of violence in the game.
Historically, violence in hockey has been good for the growth of the game, bad for the health of the players, and sometimes downright ugly for everyone involved. The good side makes us love the thrill and appreciate the ferocity; the bad side makes us challenge the rules and nature of the action; the ugly side makes us question the merits and culture of the sport entirely. Some of the most blatant examples include on-ice deaths as a result of violent actions, crimes, riots, and lawsuits. Unfortunately, there have been more than 10 documented cases of death caused by on-ice incidents. The earliest dating to 1905, where Alcide Laurin of Maxville, Ontario was struck with a stick to the temple and pronounced dead on the ice, and most recently in 2013 where Russian winger Dmitri Uchaykin died of cerebral hemorrhage after sustaining a high hit in the Kazakhstan Hockey Championship playoffs. Although very rare occurrences, it puts the game into perspective when thinking of the risks involved. Riots and crime committed by fans in both celebratory and spiteful scenarios have also stained the history of the sport.
The game of hockey is in no way responsible for the conduct of its’ fan base or individuals off the ice, but it has been suggested at times that the violence in the game may translate to rowdy fans. M. Lewis, head professor of sociology at Kent State University in Ohio, is one of the leaders in the study of fan violence in sports. He specializes in examining large-scale incidents that frequently occur during the playoffs across the major North American sports. Hockey’s contribution includes the Vancouver riot of 2011 that resulted in over $4 million in property damage, theft, and vandalism. It also includes celebratory riots, like the one that accompanied the Canadiens Cup victory in 1993, as well as smaller-scale episodes like Chicago’s following the Blackhawks’ 2013 Cup triumph. Lewis has concluded that during these incidents, the fans (often young males), are acting out as players on the team for which they share such a strong identification. These disturbances involving fans are commonly unplanned acts in which emotions boil over or become misdirected.
Violence on the ice has had criminal implications as well. There have been ugly incidents involving players in youth organizations all the way up to the professional leagues. Notable cases include Todd Bertuzzi’s sucker punch from behind on Steve Moore, breaking three of his vertebrae and ending his career. Bertuzzi was suspended for the rest of the season and was charged with criminal assault. Moore subsequently sued both Bertuzzi and the Canucks organization, reaching a settlement a decade after the crippling punch. Another incident of note was Marty McSorley’s baseball slash on Donald Brashear. After losing a fight early on in the game, and failing to coax Brashear into a rematch, McSorley stalked Brashear down the ice and proceeded to slash him across the head, rendering him unconscious. Again, the offending player was suspended for the remainder of the season, and in court found guilty of assault with a weapon. Incidents such as these gravely impact the reputation of the sport, and bring about barbaric comparisons. Building on the CTE issue, former players have started coming forward about the grievances caused by repeated hits to the head and playing through injuries. Some felt as if they were abandoned in a time of need and told that they were fine when they really were not. The entire league, including organizations, training staff and team doctors have come under fire for the mishandling of injured players. Lawsuits have been brought forth with players such as Gary Leeman, Brian Savage, and Steve Montador at the forefront. Over 100 former players have joined multiple suits. These cases, that outline the aftermath and side effects of violence in hockey, showcase the ugly truth of the repeated collisions and impacts.
Although the modern game is changing, violence has and always will be ingrained in hockey culture. From the origin of the sport, through the years of war, to current times, violence has influenced the history of the game. With the entertainment value and fanfare it creates, there is a reason commissioner Gary Bettman and company are hesitant to severely crack down on the extracurriculars. The lucrative aspects of legal bare-knuckle fighting and body checking are too enticing to abolish altogether. That being said, the league and player’s association have come to terms with the dangerous aspects of certain actions on the ice. With greater focus on player safety, the extraneous violence is slowly getting removed from the sport. While this does takeaway from the roots of hockey, it is an understandable development when considering the strength of players and pace of the modern game.
Concussion protocol has developed immensely, and the world is much more educated on the risks and consequences of head impacts, both short and long-term. In essence, the league is looking to minimize or prevent ugly moments from happening in the future. Recent surveys have shown that 51 percent of NHL fans said that a formal ban on fighting would have “no impact” on their viewership; 24 percent said it would make them “more likely” to watch games; and 25 percent said it would make them “less likely” to watch games. This suggests that although some may be apprehensive about change, the majority would not abandon the sport just because it is no longer violent enough for them. Skill, speed, and finesse have developed to a point where the game is entertaining enough without the fisticuffs and flying elbows to the head. Physical contact will always be a constituent of hockey, but it no longer needs to serve a main role. It will be interesting to see the developments of the game in years to come.