Blaming the Yanks: Our National Sport?

There are lots of arguments made to justify the continued existence of nearly consequence-free fighting in the NHL and its Canadian junior hockey feeder system. The first, and most prominently used, is the “safety valve” defence, which says that hockey is a fast and violent sport and that the occasional furious dust-up is an essential way to blow off steam. (Meanwhile, of course, the ferocious collisions and trench warfare of American football have never led the NFL or any league to permit fighting. Curious.)

The second rationalization is a bit more slippery and more difficult to refute, at least in Canada. It’s also dishonest. Fans of Our Game have long indulged in a national pastime to explain why hockey, alone among major sports (more on this “major” business later), allows players who scrap to serve a brief term in the “sin bin” – usually at no competitive disadvantage to their teams – and then return to the fray. The explanation runs as follows. Canadians are sophisticated fans who’ve played the game and understand its nuances, skills and graces. Heck, they can even follow the movement of the puck on TV without any technical trickery. (Friggin’ Americans and their glowing puck! What a joke, we snort merrily and pat each other on the back.) Fighting? Well, we can take it or leave it, but the NHL needs to keep it, eh, because that’s all the Americans want to see and we gotta market the game to people who don’t really get it. Get it?

Well, last night’s game between the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres turned into a Rodney Dangerfield joke: Hey, I went to the Gardens to watch some boxing last night…and a HOCKEY game broke out! A thundering (and legal) bodycheck injured a Sabre, so the Sabres sent in the clowns. When all the gloves and sticks had been picked up, three players had been kicked out (unusual in hockey) including the Senators’ star goalkeeper. Today’s Ottawa sports conversation is dominated by gushing admiration for “Sugar” Ray Emery, a goalie who loves to fight, and the snobbery of Argument the Second is punctured. It’s US that digs the fisticuffs, not the U.S.

This game — no, not the game, the low-skill boxing — was the number one story in Ottawa today, and likely superseded, in every Canucklehead hockey conversation, the lengthy roster of important late-season games played last night . And boy, it’s gonna be a doozy tomorrow night when the Sabres come back to our barn! They’ll dress McGrattan for sure! (Brian McGrattan is a minor-league hockey player with big-league fists, and is Ottawa’s official “enforcer”. Though he rarely dresses, and plays little when he does, he is among the most popular players. He gets advertising gigs for car dealers, while the Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson, a highly skilled Swede, doesn’t.) I heard the replays of the radio call, and gleeful giddiness just oozes from the commentators. Ray Emery has been a surprise with his fine play this year, when he was expected to be Ottawa’s number two keeper, but he is now officially a Legend in this city. The fawning comments of the callers-in, and the extent to which this story shelved all others – that is, totally – were telling indicators. We can’t blame the Yanks for the existence of fighting in hockey.

In fact, American kids with competitive aspirations play in a school-based system in which fighting is not allowed; drop ‘em and you’re out of the game and suspended further, just as in the European developmental hotbeds for most of hockey’s best playmakers. I don’t doubt that there are young American fans who get their motors running for the toe-to-toe stuff. It’s a pretty wild rush of adrenaline, and I dug it as a kid, too. But in the wider context of the American sports universe, the continued existence of fighting in hockey lumps the NHL in with roller derby or ultimate fighting (or “slamball”, the made-for-TV, full-contact combination of basketball and aggravated assault). It’s just not a sport to be taken entirely seriously, Canadian goonery and machismo notwithstanding.

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