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Can’t Touch This

Posted By Mika Oehling On Apr 4 2011 @ 3:38 pm In NHL | No Comments

The NHL plans to eliminate body checking by 2013. Bettman claims that this decision has nothing to do with the negative press around how violent the game is getting and how gruesome head shots are becoming, nor their alarming frequency. It’s funny that he would say that, considering that taking violence out of a game whose image is suffering because of violence, but they have nothing to do with one another, is sort of like saying that Lindsay Lohan’s decision to go back to rehab has nothing to do with a drunken binge that ended with her parking on a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. There must be some sort of causal relationship, surely? His sudden concern over the safety of the game must have something to do with it becoming more dangerous, otherwise it would be pretty hard to justify the decision to make a hard nose game like hockey turn into competitive ice dance in a period of a couple of years.

This latest scenario kind of looks like this to me: let’s say you have a school dance where there are no formal rules about slow dancing and contact. Let’s say one of these dances results in a hot makeout session on the dance floor that has every parent in the school calling on the principal to safeguard family values and morals. The principal initially pulls the school board together to decide how to equip the gym in different ways so as to make contact on the dance floor impossible, or, at the very least, soften the effect. The parents complain that it’s not appropriate to blame the gym dimensions for the problem, so the principal pulls the school board together to decide on a convoluted points system that is set up to determine which contact is going to be permissible and which is not. The parents complain that this points system is ineffective, particularly because it’s d0ne on a case-by-case basis and is run by a board member whose son happens to also be in the school, and that certain students seem to be persisting in their activities without proper punishment and that this punishment is often a randomly assigned number of school day suspensions, let’s say, 6.  The parents are in an uproar and some of them are considering pulling their children out of the school for their safety and well being. The principal then comes up with the brilliant idea that there will be no more dances.

It’s funny to think that this is where the NHL’s management has come to. They’re so ineffective in dealing with the problem of head shots, they’ve just given up on the idea of regulating the game effectively at all. All that hand-wringing and all those token punishments didn’t result in anything- something which surely stunned managers the league over. Critics and fans have been quick to point out that the head shots are the truly troublesome part of the game, not the physicality of the game. Mike Babcock pretty much said it the best: “we can hit each other as hard as we want, but we can leave the heads out of it.” Apparently that was too hard for the NHL to figure out.

Most hockey fans like a good hard hit or the odd stage fight. They’re all part of the good old hockey game. And they’re done with a purpose, which is to separate players from pucks or create open spaces for attacks on the ice. When they’re done well, they’re actually beautiful to watch. Most people understand and appreciate this. Most people don’t want to go back to the days of goons with no teeth duking it out with everyone in the arena; that said, it’s not necessary to soften the game like well water because the NHL can’t discipline repeat offenders who maliciously seek to be-head opponents.

People like the toughness of the game, they just don’t want to see unnecessary or malicious damage. It’s unsportsmanlike to knock someone’s block off, even dumb jocks know that. And while we’re on the topic of regulating violence in sport, let’s take a moment to mention someone who will be a real winner with this move: the UFC. Once a basement dwelling money losing side show, as reported by the Globe and Mail Report on Business recently, it’s now a multimillion dollar machine with Georges St. Pierre as its headliner. People don’t hate violence, they hate unfair, unregulated, messy violence. There’s something socially acceptable about making rules, drawing lines, and putting together evenly-skilled combatants on display and this is an age-old and respected tradition worldwide. If you take contact out of hockey, you’ll just be handing money to the UFC.

Hockey without contact will look more like international tournaments. And to quote a rather famous one, “they’re going home.” But it will be the fans this time.

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