Montreal Canadiens fans were horrified on March 8 when the seemingly lifeless body of a young star, Max Pacioretty, laid on the Bell Centre ice for minutes before being carried away on a stretcher by paramedics. Pacioretty wasn’t just a victim of an overzealous defenceman looking to intimidate his opponents, but a sport culture that tolerates brutal violence and even promotes it.
One of the leading supporters of hockey violence is the CBC’s Don Cherry, who expectedly approved of the National Hockey League’s decision not to suspend the offender in this case, Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins. On a recent edition of his Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada, Cherry unleashed one of his trademark rants, lambasting everyone from the Canadiens’ Geoff Molson to the NHL’s corporate sponsors for having the gall to suggest that the league address the epidemic of head injuries in the game.
“If [Chara] tried to hurt guys, he’d kill ‘em at that size (He’s 6’9’’, 255 lbs.). There’s no way – you can’t give ‘em – well, why didn’t you give ‘em three or four games – you can’t give ‘em three or four games. Either you give ‘em 20 games or you give ‘em none!” Cherry said on the CBC. “And how about Via Rail! What a phoney they are, they jumpin’ on the bandwagon. And Air Canada, you should be ashamed of yourself! And by the way, where are their corporate headquarters? You know where they are. In Montreal! Should be ashamed of yourself, talkin’ like that, jumpin’ on the bandwagon. Sickenin’…” F years, Cherry has been Canada’s head cheerleader for hockey violence, subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer.
His collection of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em videos have reached their 22nd volume; essentially, it is a compilation of brutal hits – some legal, some not – set to cheesy rock or techno music, with Cherry’s poignant analysis. Viewers may notice a trend: He seems to take special pleasure in players who aren’t Anglophone North-Americans being the victims of rough play. Among a few borderline bigoted incidents, the CBC had to put Coach’s Corner on a seven-second delay in 2004 after he mocked “French guys and Europeans” for wearing visors on their helmets.Trying to protect your eyesight in an increasingly vicious game…what cowards!He also recently took at shot at Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s political opponents, calling them “left-wing pinkos” – a hardly refreshing throwback to the McCarthy era.
After viewing one too many Rock ‘em Sock ‘em videos on YouTube, one could come to the conclusion that it is nothing more than hockey pornography and Cherry himself is a sleazy pornographer (incidentally, it is worth noting that the only genres of film with sequels that often number in the double-digits are either horror or porn).
Like any pornographer, Cherry removes the purity and substance from the act and renders it into a vulgar display that appeals to our primal instincts. That is what the promoters of hockey violence are afraid to acknowledge; that they simply can’t overcome their desire for bloodlust, even if it means ruining the game of hockey and potentially the lives of some players.
Whether it’s headshots like Chara’s or one-on-one fist fights that are even more commonplace, the “it’s part of the game” argument doesn’t hold up. If it was a legitimate part of the game, players wouldn’t be penalized for these types of violent gestures. And why is it that other professional sports leagues manage to better control the violent behaviour of athletes while the NHL (even some of its referees) encourage a more combative and dangerous game?
Perhaps it is simply a question of dollars and cents. Violence sells, for many of the same reasons that sex sells; it appeals to our most basic human instincts. Those of us who are more refined can overcome those primal desires to appreciate a game that requires a high level of skill and finesse. Those of us who aren’t just want to see a couple of sweaty men collide, with one – if all goes according to plan – not getting up.
Like porn, these attacks on the ice are titillating because some fans take pleasure in their players humiliating and degrading their opponents. Perhaps these more rabid fans are living vicariously through professional hockey players like Chara, who are the powerful tough-guys they never were. There may not be anything overtly homoerotic about watching one man pummel or severely injure another, but the parallels still exist; the build-up, the dance, the…release.
It would be a shame if NHL hockey became a rubber-necker’s sport, like NASCAR, where spectators are more interested in the next injury than the game itself. We should demand better from the Canadian game and from its players. If the league doesn’t crack down on vicious headshots, a tragedy could forever tarnish the game. And with players dropping like flies, the question isn’t so much if someone will be paralyzed or even killed, but when. Now, that would be a show, I tell ya!