Friday, August 26, 2011

I am apparently late to the party

But I have just learned that Bruce Boudreau was used as an extra in Slap Shot. Yeah, the movie. Check out this 20-second clip of the Chiefs' game against the Hyannisport Presidents.

Number 7 on the Presidents is apparently a young Boudreau, who played at the time for the Johnstown Jets of the short-lived North American Hockey League. The film apparently tapped the Jets for extras pretty often, and - well - there he is.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On fights, and those who fight

Okay, so let's get serious today.

You may recall Rick Rypien, a 4th-line center who spent years in and out of the Canucks' lineup as a fighter - he was the one who was suspended last year for grabbing a fan. Last month, at age 27, he signed a new, fresh-start contract with the new Winnipeg Jets. Well, Rypien was apparently found dead in his home yesterday, with no information yet released about cause of death.

This news, in conjunction with the death of Boogaard a few months ago, has of course reawoken the old debate about violence in hockey among sportswriters who say dumb shit for a living. You know, like Bill Plaschke, who was on some ESPN show the other day, yelling about the Islanders having a watch party this summer for last season's insane brawl game against the Penguins. Plaschke said, somewhat offensively, "this is why your sport is a fringe sport!" No, you dingleberry, it's a fringe sport because, among other reasons, it's not on ESPN. But the point is that people like that love to point out how violent hockey is - the implication being "well if they'd just stop punching each other, we true-blooded Americans would get on board!"

So, of course, a lot of that came out of the woodwork today, after the news that a second enforcer died in the prime of his NHL career this summer. The argument is simple: Rypien, like Boogaard, has had some behavioral problems, and it seems non-coincidental that an enforcer's life can lead to these kinds of issues. And, as expected, hockey lovers came immediately to fighting's defense, with an argument best summed up in Down Goes Brown's tweet, "a presumptive 'screw you' to anyone who thinks it's appropriate to start up the fighting debate."

First of all, the Plaschke-esque argument that this is the kind of stuff that keeps hockey out of the mainstream is dishonest. Yes, hockey is a very physical sport. But football requires 300-pound men to put on helmets and run toward each other at full speed with the sole intention of gaining ground, over and over again, and you don't see the NFL starving for American fans.

Also, the most attended live competition in America is NASCAR. Come on.

With that said, the hockey community absolutely has a responsibility to protect its own, and if there is a certain kind of lifestyle that is put in danger by playing hockey, measures should be taken to help. Puck Daddy, as usual, has a pretty good piece summarizing a few different people's reactions to the whole thing. "To say the physical toll of fighting doesn't exacerbate the problems for a hockey player is a head-in-the-sand position," Wyshynski writes, "but to say fighting is at the heart of these problems is also naïve."

It's a pretty reasonable position to take in the current debate. If the NHL is concerned about mental trauma, the NHL should step up its rehab and counseling programs (and not just to make a show of them because a convenient target said "sloppy seconds" in a locker room). But I wonder if there's an underlying issue here that the debate doesn't capture. To me, the question isn't whether there should be fights, it's how there should be fights.

I'm no historian, but fighting hasn't always been like this. Yes, the game as a whole is bigger and faster these days, but fighting itself is also a lot more delegated than it used to be. I'm not saying everyone used to be Gordie Howe. There have always been McSorleys and Gretzkys (Gretzkies?): people you didn't fuck with and people who skated next to them and scored goals. But I wonder if it's more polarized these days. Sure, there's an argument that a Donald Brashear has no place in today's NHL; but I wonder if he has no place in 1975's NHL either.

Yes, the Broad Street Bullies won a lot of hockey games by kicking a lot of asses, but they did it as a team. Yes, there are bigger guys and littler guys on every squad. And yes, while sometimes bigger guys would be cheap and go after littler guys, there was always a cultural mandate for bigger guys taking on bigger guys. But hockey didn't really have this understood, staged approach to fighting: two "scorers" get into a scuffle, they skate away quickly, and the two teams' "fighters" go out for the next shift, face off, and immediately drop the gloves. Then everything goes back to normal.

Like so many hockey fans, I am all about fighting as a part of hockey. But that's the key phrase right there - I want it to be a part of hockey, not a thing that also happens during a hockey game. Less Warren Zevon's "Buddy" and more Brandon Dubinsky vs. Mike Richards. Two team contributors who aren't afraid to throw punches at each other, when the game demands it. That's the kind of fighting I'm looking for. It's the kind that's been a part of the game forever.

Hockey's a physical, passionate sport, and we embrace that, and that's part of what makes us special. Sure, that kind of sentence is always used to defend fighting in hockey, so it's not particularly interesting here. But it's important because it highlights the kind of fighting real hockey fans want to see.

I'm not claiming to understand the psychology behind the tragedies the NHL has seen this summer, and I'm certainly not claiming that a different attitude toward fighting in the league could have prevented either of them. But I do think it's important to go a little deeper than the current discussion does, because the implications of the kinds of fighting we see in the game today are a lot more nuanced than those of "does fighting lead to these problems?"

If a better understanding of that doesn't lead to the prevention of awful events like this summer's, maybe it can at least lead to a better understanding of them and of hockey as a whole.