OutTakes: Pardon me while I skate over your knuckles

Buddy’s real talent was beating people up

His heart wasn’t in it but the crowd ate it up

Through pee-wees and juniors, midgets and mites

He must have racked up more than six hundred fights […]

But what can a farm boy from Canada do?

Hit somebody! was what the crowd roared

When Buddy the goon came over the boards

“Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)”
– Warren Zevon

Despite using a song about Buddy the Goon as its introduction, today’s story is my argument against calling Canada a violent nation because of its leadership in hockey. The New York Times (October 11) says that, to see the nature of Canada’s violence, all one has to do is look at the National Hockey League, even though, according to the article, “Canadian violence is an oxymoron.”

But it is the start of the NHL season, and the goons are gathering to perform things the fans want, tamed by somewhat wilted titles such as “throwing checks” and facing “box time” for their dirty deeds. Hockey in Canada is a bit like nighttime in Las Vegas or hard-toed sneakers, serving different purposes to different people. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls it a “great game,” as did my peewee coach, an orthopedic surgeon from Winnipeg. David Letterman yells at us to, “Hit somebody!”

It may be that hockey does connote violence at certain stages in the game. Blades on ice, long sticks in hand, and frozen hard-rubber pucks traveling faster than one’s ability to duck them may cause some otherwise fair-minded late-juvenile to wait diligently until the cause of his anger—an opponent with his elbows up, for example—makes the mistake of approaching too close with head down, and boffo! there go blades in the air, sometimes teeth with them, and the blows begin.

So it’s gloves to the ice, knuckles to the nose, steady on your feet and ready to rumble. Like boxers in the ring, the circling begins. More time seems to be spent looking for the opening for the single solid punch that will save the thrower the anguish of taking one in return. Those who are selected for their fighting prowess know just when to hold back and just when to throw. Pretty soon, when, as often happens, the fight does not appear to be heading in either goon’s favor, they will both step back, gather their equipment that is strewn about the ice and head for the penalty boxes, where there are always sufficient liquids to quench their thirsts.

The Times article, written by Pasqual Restrepo, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at M.I.T., goes on to point out that the level of violence in Canada is actually below what Americans think it is and much below our own levels—a theory made apparent by the recent coast-to-coast gun violence here. Their violence appears mainly on the ice.

Restrepo decided to test his theory by looking at the relationship between the settlement of the two countries’ western frontiers and the impact of having the Canadian Mounted Police representing a national authority in the migration west. The American settlers had to fend for themselves, fighting off others who
“plundered and feuded,” trying to obtain what they felt they needed in order to survive in the western wilderness. He found that in this country “violent codes of honor, revenge and self-justice were second nature for early settlers and were transmitted from parents and society to children.”

In contrast, the Canadian Mounted Police exerted control over their communities, sort of like hockey referees. As fights appear, they are quickly quelled, since the fisticuffs may make the matter turn ugly and bloody and ruin the players’ chances for guest appearances with Don Cherry. Looking at historical data from the NHL, he discovered that hockey players who grew up outside the Mounties’ purview were penalized 1.4 minutes more per game than those who had Mounties’ protection.

Having coached my sons’ teams that traveled north of da bordare periodically, I learned that Canadian youth hockey depended less directly on physical contact than that played in this country. I remember specifically the rules that constrained body checking at youth levels in Canada. As a result, the Canadian kids had to learn to handle the puck and skate with speed and agility. They often did both well, and our kids soon discovered while “resting” in the penalty box that just because they were not Canucks did not mean they could hit players with abandon. The Canadian rules may, in fact, have helped those such as Wayne Gretzky, UVM’s Martin St. Louis and Patrick Sharp in becoming the accomplished leaders of their teams through skill rather than brute force. Even St. Albans’ John LeClair, though sizable enough to handle most other players physically, must have taken a tip from his northern buddies, as his NHL prowess seemed to rely equally on puck control, quick hands and a mean shot.

After all, one only needs to show up at the Forum in tattered blue jeans and a ragged sweater for a Montreal Canadiens’ home game to soon realize that you’re in minority attire among the fans who, to a T, are decked out in blazers, ties, probably even a cummerbund here and there. Les Canadiens are a gentleman’s team with a long history of skill over knuckles. In early NHL history, it was in places such as New York and Chicago (even Detroit to some extent), where hockey was not embedded in the culture as it is in Canada, that the fans cheered on the slug matches and argued that every game needed its share of fights. Madison Square Garden could become as much a ring as a rink when the Rangers were in town.

So let the season begin (although it seems a bit early to me as someone who grew up relying on outdoor rinks). Unfortunately, I feel that, due to its length and the fans’ desires where hockey is not king, violence often replaces the sport and that we have to wait until spring to see the really great playoff hockey, when stick skills and skate speed play the dominant roles. But, then again, as my son’s teammate once said, “The best seats in the house are in the penalty box. So, make yourselves comfortable.”