There’s this line in the movie “Reds” in which an old woman offers this philosophy:
“Men like war. If they didn’t, they would have stopped it years ago.”
The same can be said about hockey violence. It doesn’t just happen when you step on ice. It, too, could have been stopped years ago.
But violence has been a part of hockey for as long as skaters can remember — at least in North America — and truth be told, people like it. The players. The coaches. And the fans. The fans may like it most of all.
So last week, when Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi was suspended for the season after breaking the neck of Colorado’s Steve Moore in a cheap, blind-side hit, the parade of emotions was almost laughable. The National Hockey League banged its fist. Angry fans flooded talk shows. Bertuzzi gave a tearful apology and said, “That’s not the way I play the game.”
But that’s exactly the way the game is played. What critics are decrying is the consequence as much as the action. Bertuzzi hit Moore from behind, then fell on top of him. It was the angle of the fall and Bertuzzi’s weight that likely broke Moore’s neck. But a different twist here, another angle there, and Moore gets up, shakes it off, and all Bertuzzi is facing are a few meaningless minutes in a penalty box.
He wouldn’t have even gotten booed, since he was playing at home.
Instead he’s out for the season, a harsh punishment intended to be harsh, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seems proud of the quick sentence.
“I think we will ultimately be judged on our response and the message that it sends,” Bettman said.
Here’s the message: If you’re going to throw a cheap shot, make sure your target doesn’t get too hurt.
A matter of semantics
Did you know that in a recent hockey game between Ottawa and Philadelphia there were 419 penalty minutes given out? That’s nearly seven hours worth of penalties! Fights here. Fights there. This guy swinging. That guy swinging. Are you trying to tell me that that’s OK, but Bertuzzi isn’t? What’s the difference? If one of those guys throws the wrong punch, wrong angle, a guy slips and smacks his head on the boards the wrong way — then suddenly it moves from tolerable to intolerable?
You want to stop fighting? It’s simple. The second a guy throws a punch, a whistle blows and he’s ejected. The moment a guy uses his stick for anything other than moving the puck — a whistle blows and he’s ejected.
It’s not hard. It’s even doable. Basketball has such rules. Even football, for all its violence, doesn’t tolerate a punch. Better yet, go watch hockey in Europe. They don’t fight. Same with the Olympics. And you know what? It still looks like hockey.
But that is not tradition here in North America, and tradition means a lot. Ask most NHL players about this and they shrug.
“If a fight comes around, you just fight,” said Colorado defenseman Kurt Sauer. “But you don’t try and hurt anyone.”
You follow that logic? Fight, but don’t hurt. If it comes around, it comes around.
Is it just me, or does that not exactly sound like an atmosphere for reform?
A culture of violence
And let’s be honest. While no one celebrated what happened to Moore, fights are a huge draw for hockey fans. People tape them. They sell them over the Internet. There’s a guy who sits near the press box at Joe Louis Arena, and year after year, whenever things get slow on the ice he screams out, “Hit somebody!”
No one rebukes him. Many hope the players will listen. Fact is, outside of a winning goal, there is no electricity in a hockey arena like the electricity when two players square off. Red Wings fans still recall the thrill of the Darren McCarty-Claude Lemieux battles. I call it a “thrill,” because when I dared suggest it was something otherwise — unnecessary violence — the hate letters rolled in.
Men like war. Hockey likes fighting.
The proof is simple.
The proof is they are still around.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).