TORONTO — Canadians have an almost irritating reputation for being tolerant and polite. But in hockey, their dark side spills out.
Calls to curb violence in Canada’s national sport are almost as old as the game itself. But there’s new urgency to the debate: Statistics indicate a 24 percent increase in fighting in the National Hockey League this season, and two punch-ups in its feeder leagues have had terrifying results.
The latest incident occurred Jan. 23 in Philadelphia during a game in the American Hockey League, which is made up of farm teams for the NHL.
The Canadian protagonists, Kevin Westgarth of the Manchester Monarchs and Garrett Klotz of the Philadelphia Phantoms, are Goliaths on skates. Both are 6-feet 5-inches tall and considered “enforcers” by their teams — hockey thugs paid solely to settle scores.
Their clash occurred three seconds after the puck was dropped for the opening faceoff. They looked at each other, dropped their gloves and started swinging.
Some have speculated the incident was payback for a fight Westgarth had with a different Phantom player 11 weeks earlier. What’s clear is that neither player made any pretense of being there to play hockey and no one — not the coaches, the other players or the referees — seemed the least bit surprised. As for the fans, well, what’s a hockey game without a good thrashing?
The incident, as always, was swift and brutal. Westgarth landed three punches that sent Klotz sprawling on the ice, unconscious, his body convulsing in a frightening seizure. He was released from the hospital the next day.
Klotz described his beating as “scary.” Yet he vowed to keep doing what he does best — fighting. Above all, he hoped his pummeling wouldn’t be used to boost fight-banning calls. Lacking speed or grace on skates, Klotz knows better than most that his fists are his only possible ticket to the NHL.
His mother, who almost threw up when she heard the news about her son, criticized sports channels for repeatedly showing highlights of fights. Fighting “has kind of been glorified, but not from a mother’s point of view,” she told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newspaper.
Canada was in a deep hockey violence debate even before Klotz was wheeled off the ice in a gurney. It erupted Jan. 2, when 21-year-old Don Sanderson died from injuries sustained in a fight three weeks earlier when his head smashed on the ice in an Ontario Hockey League game.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gave his predictable response to the debate the day Westgarth was released from hospital. “I don’t think there’s any appetite to abolish fighting from the game,” he told reporters. He instead promised to review “the rules of engagement” to make fighting “as safe as possible.”
A poll published Jan. 28 by the Harris-Decima firm found 54 percent of Canadians want hockey fights banned. But of those who say they follow the game closely, 68 percent want pugilism to stay.
Bettman’s decision came as commentators on television broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada were busy ridiculing calls to clean up the game. Former NHL coaches Mike Milbury and Don Cherry said a ban would result in hockey’s “pansification,” a term they derived from the word pansy. A group representing gays and lesbians asked the CBC, the state-owned broadcaster, to ban the term as offensive to homosexuals. The usually compliant CBC refused.
None of this surprises University of Alberta Professor Stacy Lorenz, who has studied the history of hockey violence. He notes it has long been excused as “just part of the game.” Two of the many infamous examples occurred in 1905, when a player killed an opponent by clubbing him with his stick, and in 1907, when another death by clubbing occurred. Both players were charged with manslaughter. Both were acquitted in jury trials filled with testimony of violence being intrinsic to the game.
According to the Globe and Mail newspaper, the defense lawyer in the 1905 case flatly stated that “a manly nation requires manly games” — a sentiment Milbury and Cherry would no doubt approve of.
A 2006 essay in the Journal of Canadian Studies, co-authored by Lorenz, argues that, “Violence in hockey addressed a social need in helping Canadians to define and develop a meaningful masculinity.” It was the late 19th century, a time when industrial capitalism spawned the rise of middle-class merchants, clerks, bureaucrats and professionals. With them came dominant norms of industriousness, sobriety, and moral uprightness, Lorenz wrote. For working-class men, hockey violence was a way of challenging this dominant ethos.
“‘Primitive’ elements in sports like hockey helped to counter the fear that over-civilization was making men weak, effeminate and over-sophisticated,” Lorenz wrote.
Judging by the level of violence in today’s game, these early enforcers can rest assured that civilization has been kept at bay.
Other GlobalPost dispatches from Canada:
Do you know where your oil comes from?
The fate of Canada's unicorns of the sea