Why Hockey Grips Fans

I awoke one morning earlier this week thinking: "Why 1918?" Last Saturday night, during the Leafs-Devils hockey game, Don Cherry had offered his assessment of violence in the game today, exemplified by Tie Domi's sneak elbow to Scott Niedermayer's head. "That stuff has been happening since 1918," said The Coach.

Was he referring to the armistice that ended the First World War? Did he mean that once the bloodletting in the trenches stopped, hockey took over and continued the carnage in different form? Or was he thinking of the NHL's founding in 1917, and got the date wrong? Or did he mean a particular event? Most news reports about games in those days read like despatches from No Man's Land. Someone who watched a game between Renfrew and Haileybury, for example, said: "They went in intact but they came out on stretchers," just like Scott Niedermayer. So hockey has a brutal past. But it could have outgrown it, as it outgrew tobacco-chawing and spitting, or not wearing helmets. They used poison gas on the battlefields in 1918 but then it was outlawed; yet war managed to thrive in the century that followed.

There's more involved here than Don Cherry's view. Violence simmers in hockey, then it bursts out, then it simmers some more. It's one reason the game tends to grip us. I'm always amazed at the number of people I go to hockey games with - many, given my circles, of a left-wing or even pacifist bent - who leap up howling when a fight starts. It touches us. There's controlled violence and there's uncontrolled, and hockey has examples of both, the latter often threatening the former. Tie Domi's elbow was a case of the latter: quite unconnected to the script that had been unfolding till then, yet subverting and redirecting the action for the rest of the series.

So, heading into the next day's disciplinary hearing, Leaf coach Pat Quinn roughed up a photographer on the way to the elevator. Now it was happening off ice too. As the elevator door closed, the last thing revealed was the face of team president Ken Dryden, himself a national icon since his debut in these same playoffs thirty years ago; eyes rolling, marvelling at the size of the mess and what the hell to do about it. Maybe his thoughts went back to his own days in the crease when, he said, there were some players on the other side who evoked emotions he didn't know he had. Sure enough, two games later, icy cool Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph exploded at a Devils player who assaulted him when it didn't matter at all.

Next came Tie Domi's apology, a master attempt to take control of the uncontrollable. By holding a press conference the day following his suspension, he must have removed a great weight from his teammates. They didn't have to feel angry with him, because he was punishing himself. They didn't have to justify him, since he had taken responsibility for what he did, nor did they have to stand up for him during that night's game. Of course, the apology had to seem genuine or it wouldn't work any of these wonders - and it did, especially when he lost control and sobbed about the effect all this would have on his son. It had a touch of gangster Tony Soprano telling a shrink that he was glad his boy had learned that his dad could look after himself but he still didn't want the son to turn out like the father.

Speaking of control, there was a sense Tie Domi didn't have it - and not just at the press conference. He looked like a fly in a web, a man caught in a set of circumstances he'd been dealing with all his life, but which he never really understood. You think you're using them, that you're just being yourself, there are people who adore and respect you, you may even start to respect yourself, then wham.

There's an old TV movie called The Penalty Killer, about a hockey goon played by the eccentric Michael Moriarty, who went on to play Ben Stone on Law & Order, then moved to Canada. The goon nearly kills someone on the ice, is charged with it, and his lawyers negotiate a plea, which they tell him will involve doing time. He utters an immortal line, which owes everything to its delivery: "Priisonn?" he wails. Everyone around him seems relaxed; they were expecting a jail term - what other result could there be? - yet he is staggered. It's about the way our circumstances control us, despite our illusions of control and freedom. It's especially poignant in the case of a tough guy.

If anyone suspects this discussion is a way of prolonging a hockey season that ended for many of us two nights ago, let me grant the point. And add, since I'm speaking of control and its lack, that another thing about hockey that grips us, is precisely that uncontrollable quality of it embodied in the puck itself. The puck has a weird shape, it skips and slides on the ice; the players skid on their skates, they swat at it with oddly shaped sticks. There's more contingency in this game than in any other since that puck is so largely out of control and, yet, you must somehow try to control it. Just like the violence.

Originally published by The Globe and Mail. Rick Salutin's column appears every Friday. Posted on rabble.ca with permission.

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