One of my fondest memories growing up in the early 90's as an adolescent was going to the local Blockbuster on the weekends. My cousins, thanks to their Polish father, allowed me to grow up on a steady diet of nintendo, vegetables, and hockey. Sure, I was watching Carpenter instead of Kurosawa (nothing wrong with that even as an adult), playing Contra instead of doing my math homework, but that's what you do when you're a kid.
The other videos I'd rent were Don Cherry's Rock'em Sock'em Hockey. Violence is a logical fascination for any young boy; a reminder that no matter what our religious beliefs, we're still chained to the landscape of the natural world. And so began my fascination with hockey's unique subculture. So much so that one of the first books I took out of the Nolan Catholic library was, not the Great Gatsby or Catcher on the Rye, but Stan Fischler's Bad Boys.
Don Cherry himself has made a career out of emphasizing this subculture as something more. More component than curiosity, fighting is part of the hockey narrative that underlines human warfare. Or so he argues.
This attitude takes on a different dimension as an adult.
Especially for those interested in the nature and science of concussions. I've made my "blogger career" out of my curiosity over it, despite frequently covering the sport of prizefighting. We've come a long way in understanding the science, but clearly not enough. It's not just a concussion that can lead to an Alzheimer's like brain disease we now know as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, but middling hits...the kind you don't suspect can lead to long term brain damage*; a phenomenon that explains why NFL lineman are more frequently the victims of this disease.
And so it has gone in the NHL. Derek Boogaard has provided for an interesting portrait, which the New York Times did a fantastic job of covering in 2011, along with an accompanying three part video series (which I can't recommend enough).
In this light, the culture of toughness highlighted by the NHL takes on a different meaning.
But is it a culture we're willing to give up? It doesn't appear so. For one, the concussion crisis is not meant to be an argument to rid hockey of fighting. Not just because it's unsound, but because the science of concussions is still not well understood. Plenty of scientists, including one of the most high profile concussion experts Dr. Robert Cantu, have correlated concussions with substance abuse, depression, and steroids. Yet causation is not correlation. And one could argue the opposite: that perhaps, given the unique behavior and exercise a professional athlete engages in, that steroids, drug abuse, and depression exacerbate brain injury.
It's with all of this in mind, the science, the skepticism, the culture, and the nostalgia, that I think Lane MacDermid is worth mentioning here. Seems like a jarring transition, but in the roster thread, I found it interesting that MacDermid became the source of debate.
Bringing up concussions, and violence in this context is not to indict anyone for their opinions. It's not to argue that you're complicit in what has become "The Hunger Games on ice", as one Grantland writer put it. It's to ask whether or not you're willing to accept Lane MacDermid on the roster, not merely as a 4th line player, but as a protector?
If you are, do you feel guilty? Do you feel like these are consenting adults, paid handsomely for the risks, therefore hockey's "violence culture" doesn't matter much? Do you feel like the notion itself, that MacDermid will somehow keep keep Seguin and Nichushkin from having liberties taken on them, to be silly in and of itself?
Or are you simply aligned with the players? Justin Bourne over at Backhand Shelf wrote a fantastic piece on it that ends in a surprisingly lucid but neutral conclusion.On his personal experience:
"I think fights sucked me into games more than they pulled me out of them, because they add to the storyline, and they add to the (bad) relationships between and your opponents. I’m certainly not of the mind that they helped my team win many games over my career, if any, but I do think they probably made some of the games better overall. And, if you believe your team is the better team, as so many players do, you might as well try to raise that level as high as it’ll go."
I really don’t see the need to glorify or condemn fighting in hockey. As it currently stands, it just…is.
For their part, here's a shockingly articulate compendium of thoughts on part of NHL players themselves:
*I interviewed Sports Illustrated's David Epstein a couple of years ago, who recounted to me the high concussion rates done in a survey involving...wait for it...equestrian sports (!).