Violence at the good ol' hockey game

(Edmonton) When violence erupts on the ice during Canada’s favourite game, there are those who love it and want more, and those who decry it. Either way, invariably the question gets asked: is hockey becoming more violent?

Absolutely not, says Dan Mason, a business of hockey expert at the University of Alberta. “I don’t think the game is any more violent today than it was in the past,” he says. “The problem with today’s hockey is that you have bigger, faster, stronger players, so the severity of the injuries is greater, and when they hit each other, they’re more likely to hurt each other.”

Media and technology play a big role too. Mason says incidents are magnified more today, thanks to action filmed from multiple angles, super slow-motion and instant replays.

Mason says the media attention given to the hit dished out by hulking Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty in early March had people who don’t even watch hockey taking an interest in the incident.

“Thanks to the media, we’ve seen that hit over and over again,” said mason. “Yet on YouTube there are many examples of egregious behaviours by hockey players and violence in the NHL that happened in the past that were equally violent but were not treated the same way by the public.”

Violence in hockey is, and always has been, part of the game, says Mason, who calls hockey a “collision sport,” principally because of the speed at which the game is played. It’s inevitable, therefore, says Mason, that “there are always going to be collisions and players whose tempers are going to flare and the possibility of violent behaviour on the ice.”

Moreover, he says, fans of the game enjoy the sport for different reasons.

“Some people enjoy hockey because of the violence, and others appreciate the aesthetics—the skating, the skill and speed—but they are all bound up together, and that’s critical for the NHL in terms of marketing and branding its product,” says Mason, adding that research studies have shown that the more violent the game, the bigger the attendance.

“The NHL knows that (violence) is its bread and butter, so it has to create an environment where there is going to be aggressive play,” he says.

Furthermore, violence in sport is nothing new, says Mason; almost all of the popular team sports we know today evolved in the mid-to-late 19th century from the British school system where sports like rugby, which begat American football, and soccer were played. He says these sports, rough at best, became even more so as urbanization increased.

“Men who worked the land showed their manliness by how they worked in an agrarian environment, but with the move to the city, it was harder to prove one’s manliness if you worked as a bank clerk, for example,” he said. “Sport became a way through which men and boys could show that they were men.”

Hockey was no different. Mason says news coverage of one of those early games describes players ramming each other’s heads into the boards, and one player pinning another player’s head down on the ice by placing his stick across his neck and kneeling on each end of the stick.

As interest grew in this most manly of sports, athletic associations, founded by Canada’s moneyed elite, took root to control the game and keep the working classes out.

“The upper and middle classes in the larger urbanized areas took a leadership role in organizing the events, so hockey was the exclusive preserve of the amateur associations in Canada,” said Mason. “Then the sport became more popular, with more people—and more classes of people—playing, and issues arose about the control of the sport and perceptions about why people were playing it.”

Mason says at one point amateur hockey was seen to be the more noble way to participate in sport, and the powerful Ontario Hockey Association actually banned any players paid to play.

One such player, dentist Jack Gibson, found himself banned from playing after his team won a lower tier championship and was given money by an ardent supporter. It’s here that hockey’s history takes a remarkable turn. Gibson relocated his practice to Michigan, where professionalism was not frowned upon, and formed the International Hockey League. The IHL, which operated from 1904 to 1907, was the first openly professional hockey league, drawing many fine Canadian players, many of whom had been banned from playing for money in Canada, to play in the US.

“Michigan is a lot like Canada,” said Mason. “Long winters, lots of snow; there was a copper boom at the time and a disproportionately high population of working class men with little to do and plenty of discretionary money.” Thus, Mason says, they played or watched hockey, gambled on the games and drank—all of the social evils that Canada’s amateur leagues sought to curtail.

While the OHA defended the virtues of amateurism, around them teams found a way to ‘pay’ players they wanted with jobs and “broken-time payments” (payment for time lost from one’s job while playing for the team). Ultimately, leagues in Canada turned professional, preferring, as one newspaper of the time said “… to be an honest professional than a dishonest amateur.”

Today the NHL markets the greatest game on earth as one of the fastest, most ferocious, most manly and aggressive games to an audience that hasn’t changed much since the 19th century, though Mason says the game itself is “not even close to the same sport today.”

He adds that despite some of the spectacular hits and jaw-dropping fisticuffs, hockey is more popular than ever. “However, as an entertainment option there has been fragmentation of the market with many more things vying for our attention.

“Still, few things unite—or ignite—Canadians like hockey.”