Hockey violence at the crossroads

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By Renata D’Aliesio

The media came from cities such as Montreal, where hockey is fervently worshipped and players are likened to gods.  They came from cities such as Philadelphia, where enforcers are zealously remembered and the Broad Street Bullies are enshrined in hockey lore.  Fore five days last week, their satellite-television trucks invaded the streets outside an east-end Vancouver courthouse to watch National Hockey League bruiser Marty McSorley stand trial for the assault of Vancouver Canucks forward Donald Brashear, who was clubbed over the head with a stick during a game last February.  The incident replayed for days on television screen across North America.  The McSorley windup.  The devastating blow.  The inevitable fall.  Brashear’s unconscious, convulsing body.

In his ruling, B.C. Provincial Court Judge William Kitchen urged McSorley to use his influence to change the game.  He pleaded with him to help others understand that this type of violence will not be tolerated, not on the street or on the rink.  So naturally, when the guilty verdict came down last Friday, all eyes, cameras and tape recorders turned toward the veteran enforcer.  A pack of reporters followed him outside the courthouse to hear what he had to say.  Yet the 6-foot-2, 235-pound tough guy, the third-most penalized player in the history of the game, uttered not one word to the world of hockey.  This didn’t’ matter to the kids who rushed him for autographs.  The Canadian justice system may think him a stick-yielding thug, but to many, he is still a hero.

Whether the NHL admits it or not, it has hit a psychological corner.  Will violence continue to be a glorified part of the game, or will the league heed Judge Kitchen’s warning and clean up its act?  It’s a corner the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union turned 13 years ago.

In 1987, the union announced it planned to ban fighting from its games.  Referees were instructed to give players who got into a brawl a major penalty, eject them from the game, and suspend them for another.  The player deemed to be the initiator would also be given a minor penalty and suspended for an additional game.  And that’s just for the first offence.  The more fights a player got in, the more severe the penalty, culminating in an indefinite suspension for the season.

“We are trying to give a clear message that we are not prepared that we are not prepared to put up with the type of play that has been happening the last few years,” Robert Steadward, CIAU committee member, said then.  “We want to get back to the quality hockey of the past that emphasized skills such as stick-handling and checking.”

It was then, and is today, one of the only hockey leagues in North America that does not tolerate the occasional fisticuffs.  Three years ago, the CIAU even introduced a zero-tolerance policy on mouthing off to refs.

These rules, former Ryerson Rams hockey coach Louie Carnevale says, make it tough for first-year players to adjust to the CIAU game.  Almost all of them come from a minor and junior-league system that embraces fighting.  Coaches reserve spots on teams for players that can do little more than drop the gloves.  There are even hockey-fighting camps for players who want to perfect their jab.

“It’s tough [for the players] not to fight,” said Carnevale, who gave up the Rams head coaching position at the end of last season after six years at the helm.  “It’s a part of the culture.  There are times it could be settled right then and there and it’s not.

“You can only turn the other cheek so many times.”

Lots has been said in the media since the McSorley decision in which Judge Kitchen found him guilty of assault with a weapon and handed him an 18-month conditional discharge, which means he won’t spend any time in jail.  The Boston Herald proclaimed the ruling a dark day “for those who truly love the game of hockey.”  In The Toronto Star, Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin called it “a bad verdict for the game,” and teammate Tie Domi said it was an “absolutely disgusting” judgment that left him feeling “number and sick to [his] stomach.”

Most, however, seem to be hailing the decision, the first time in 12 years an NHL player has been convicted in the courts for something he did on the ice.  The last was Dino Ciccarelli, who was sentenced to one day in jail and fined $500 for striking Maple Leafs’ Luke Richardson twice in the head with his stick.  They say it has dealt a blow to the game’s “code of honour,” and could serve as a catalyst for change in the major sport that still, for the most part, turns a blind eye to violence.

Carnevale thinks there will be a place for fighting hockey.  And while he accepts the path the CIAU has chosen to take, he says the rules need to be more strictly enforced to cut down on the stickwork in the league.  Rams centre Jason Kotack, in his fifth year at Ryerson studying administration and information management, says he’s gotten used to going home with bruises after every game.  “If there’s less fighting, there’s a lot of stick-swinging,” he said, a point used by many who are against throwing fighting out of the NHL.

The CIAU says since it instituted its ban on fighting, on-ice brawls are virtually non-existent.  Kotack says players have to learn how to check their emotions because the season — about 26 regular games — is too short to be spending a game or two on the bench.  “There’s no room for fighting any more in hockey,” he said.  “Hockey would be better off selling its skilled players.”

Kotack strongly believes the day will come when NHL hockey brawls are a thing of the past.  His current coach, Ed Kirsten, isn’t so sure.  “I don’t see it happening,” he said.  “You’re trying to put people in the seats in the NHL, and the average fan who pays $100 a ticket wants to see fighting.

“As long as they continue to convey that message to the NHL, it won’t change.”

When you look back at the comments NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made shortly after the McSorley ruling, you can’t help feeling Kirsten may be right.

“This was not a trial of the game or the NHL,” he said.  “Clearly, this incident was not representative of NHL hockey or NHL players.  While the court’s decision today brings closure to this aspect of the incident, it does not alter our position that we will continue to punish severely acts of inappropriate conduct in our game.”

Clearly, the NHL isn’t ready to rewrite tradition and turn the same corner the CIAU has.

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