In a cynical and imperfect world of human chaos, one occasionally glimpses scenes of flickering sanity. I may be a pacifist, but as a lifelong Pittsburgher, I am by definition a sports fan. That, of course, means that I root for the Steelers, Penguins, and even the Pirates (I still remember the glory days). Watching last night’s Pens match against the Islanders, I witnessed an event that gives me hope for humankind.
First, I must preface my comments with an editorial on fighting in hockey. I have watched hockey for 40-odd years now. And in all that time, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone really get hurt in a hockey fight. Oh, I’ve seen bloody noses and bruised egos. But, I can’t recall ever seeing a combatant actually seriously damaged in a hockey fight. That is because hockey players rarely engage in fights to damage each other. Hockey players fight for far more important reasons — to change the momentum of a game; to respond to an action perceived to be beyond the acceptable parameters of play; or to remove a particular player from play for a short time for strategic reasons.
So, I argue that fighting in hockey is no more about violence than Greco-Roman wrestling, or log rolling. Hockey fights are physical, but fundamentally about game tactics and player motivation rather than intending to harm another.
In last night’s Pens-Islanders game, the Pens were up 2-0 as time ticked down. The Islanders pulled their goalie in order to put an extra attacker on the ice and the Pens scored an empty net goal, sealing the victory. Here is where not only game strategy, but long-term team strategy enters the game. Matt Cooke of the Penguins is a player who specializes in disrupting opponents’ strategy. He is a master of checking players into the boards and interrupting play development. Cooke also likes to “get into your head” by building the threat of intimidation. The last time these two teams played, Cooke especially worked his talents on Islanders goalie Frank DiPietro — he was actually penalized twice for goalie interference. So, while we received the penalty of playing a man short for four minutes, we gained the strategic advantage of putting just that moment of hesitation in the mind of the opponent’s goal tender whenever Cooke was around.
Now, fast forward to last night, with the Pens up 3-0, the game essentially over, and 16 seconds left in the game. As Cooke skated by DiPietro pursuing the puck, the goalie swatted at Cooke’s head with his blocker, knocking him into the boards. While unprovoked, DiPietro’s illegal hit was clearly a retaliation for all of Cooke’s previous attention to him. Brent Johnson, the Pens’ goalie, did not hesitate for a second before racing the length of the ice, and flattening DiPietro with a left to the chin.
Now comes the interesting part (to me). Johnson is now poised over the prone DiPietro, fist cocked and seemingly ready to do some serious damage. He held that pose for a few seconds, clearly showing that he had the ability to inflict damage. But he chose not to. A Just War advocate might argue that Johnson exhibited a text book response to aggression. His action against the aggressor had just cause, was rightly intended, and was exactly proportionate.
Now, maybe I am rationalizing my love for a Neanderthal sport that has no place in a modern, gentile society. But, I hold that competition has merit in society and that competition, whether it is marbles, poker, or yodeling, is inherently violent to some degree — violence in the sense that competitors try to exert dominance over opponents and, thereby, show their mastery not just of a particular skill, but of the way the skill is displayed, i.e. the rules of the game.
Does hockey go “over the top” sometimes. Sure. But, I believe that the benefits far outweigh the potential for real harm. Living in Pittsburgh, a city that our economy has long forsaken, I have seen the vital role that sports play in raising the spirits of the community and bringing people of all colors and stripes together in common purpose. And, occasionally, one is even provided the gift of a lesson in humanity while being entertained. Thanks, Brent Johnson.