Wednesday, 18 May 2011

TBC: Grace Under Fire

It's been a long, long time since HBIC has had a chance to resurrect Teebz's Book Club, but the summer is upon us so I can finally begin cracking books once again in the effort to give you reading choices to fill your hockey void in the summer! TBC is not going to give you a full discourse on Brett Butler's autobiography in this one, but I am proud to present to you Grace Under Fire, written by Lawrence Scanlan and published by the Penguin Group. Grace Under Fire is a look at the reasons and possible explanations for the violence in the game of hockey, and how the game's violence has lead to more serious acts of violence. Mr. Scanlan really puts his investigative journalism skills on display here as he looks at hockey violence from a number of viewpoints in his examination of what makes hockey such a "sweet and savage game".

From the book's dust jacket published in 2002, "Mr. Scanlan is the author of seven books, including Wild About Horses and Little Horse of Iron. He worked closely with Monty Roberts on his acclaimed book, The Man Who Listens to Horses. Winner of three National Magazine Awards for his journalism, he lives in Kingston, Ontario, with his wife and son". A little more research of my own reveals that Mr. Scanlan was born in Toronto in 1949, has also worked on CBC Radio, and has a cottage out on Prince Edward Island. He is the eldest of eight children, and his father ran a church-based hockey league that allowed Mr. Scanlan the first insights into the hockey culture. The total number of books written by Mr. Scanlan has increased from seven to fifteen by 2011, including his brand-new work entitled A Year of Living Generously.

Grace Under Fire is a very objective view on the world of violence in hockey. Mr. Scanlan does, in my view, an excellent job in exposing the factors that have led to a much more violent game, and he doesn't back away from exploring these factors and works to reach the core in why hockey players, coaches, fans, and media think the way we do about the game. There are different viewpoints that Mr. Scanlan brings forth, and each on has different thoughts and feelings towards violence in the game of hockey: players such as Marty McSorley and Ken Baumgartner, Professor Jean Côté of Queen's University's School of Physical and Health Education, Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator, and various authors with excerpts from their books such as Ken Dryden and George Plimpton. Each person has a different view of how hockey violence has shaped the game, and each has a different view on where the line should drawn when talking about violence in hockey.

Mr. Scanlan identifies a few key points in Grace Under Fire that really do present themselves in hockey. One factor that promotes violence is the history of the game. Mr. Scanlan goes to great lengths in proving that the game from yesteryear was a much more violent and physical game that what it is now. From stick-swinging incidents to bench-clearing brawls to players assaulting referees, the game was entirely more violent during the heady days of Howe, Richard, Béliveau, and Shack. Those men still talk about the "good ol' days" as if hockey were much better than it is now. To some degree, they are right as there were less systems and more free-wheeling, but the violence was exponentially worse than what it is today.

Part of that is due to intimidation, another factor that Grace Under Fire looks at in-depth. From Richard's fiery gaze to Bob Probert uttering a few words, the game has been about intimidation for decades. When intimidation comes to a head, there's usually a fight that breaks out to relieve the tension seen between two teams. However, with the introduction of the instigator rule, stickwork is back on the rise and the intimidation is only resolved through hits that are meant to hurt or injure. Mr. Scanlan points out that women's games, where bodychecking is prohibited by rule, has seen fights and big checks thrown in games as the intimidation factor grows between rivals such as Canada and the USA.

One of the other main factors that works in step with intimidation and the history of violence in the game is a distinct lack of respect shown by players for one another. No longer are bodychecks meant to separate a player from the puck; rather, they are meant to intimidate an opponent. The bigger the bodycheck is, the more the fans love it. While the educated hockey fan appreciates the finesse shown by players, it has been proven that violence sells the game in non-traditional markets and to the uneducated fan in the rink. No longer is a bodycheck a tool used by a player to break-up a play. It is now a weapon in the arsenal of tactics that a player can use to gain a competitive advantage over his opponent. The respect factor amongst players has been lost thanks to the glorification of the bone-rattling bodycheck. Smaller players cannot retaliate in that manner, and thus resort to stickwork and other tactics to even the intimidation playing field.

In the final chapter, Mr. Scanlan makes recommendations to improve the game without having to lose the physical aspect of the game. While the recommendations are great at the grassroots level, it appears that the levels above minor hockey are working against these lessons by encouraging physical play, violent checks, and fighting. Kids are taught not to check each other from behind with the "STOP" program (Safety Towards Other Players), but we see more and more occurrences of hits from behind in the major junior ranks, the NCAA ranks, and the professional ranks.

So why is hockey so violent when it seems to embrace skill and speed of star players? Mr. Scanlan offers no definitive explanation in the epilogue, but does come up with a conclusion: "Each act of hockey violence has its own genesis. Some violence, or at least the threat of it, even makes a kind of sense - given how the NHL rulebook is so loosely interpreted. Otherwise an easy target, Gretzky needed Semenko for his talent to bloom". So while it is understandable that a smaller player like Gretzky, whose talent has yet to be matched, needs a bigger player to help him out when other teams take liberties, Mr. Scanlan does call the practice of targeting Gretzky's health and well-being into question since it seems we reward those who don't have the skill of Gretzky.

What is incontestable is that some rough stuff is petty and staged: a player who is a healthy scratch for six games will often, once back in the lineup, fight (on little pretext) to show desire and impress the coach. There is yet another kind of violence rooted in loss of control or a wish - a casual, malicious desire - to put the other guy out of action. A rock-hard elbow to the head. Butt-end in the eye. Knee on knee. The common refrain heard in pro dressing rooms is that respect has gone out the window - as if this was new. It is not. What is true in hockey has been true for more than a century: Violence occurs because the penalties are so light.

The violence is condoned.
While I don't agree with all of the assertions that Mr. Scanlan puts forth, I do agree with a large number of them. Respect in hockey is something that I feel has been missing for a long, long time, and we see it everyday at rinks as parents and coaches abuse officials, coaches teach players to win at all costs, and players doing stupid things to one another that could seriously limit a career. I commend Mr. Scanlan for investigating some of the causes for the lack of respect seen in the game of hockey, and he should be commended for his work. I will do that here because if there is one book you should read this summer, you should read Grace Under Fire just to get a sense of how tolerant you may be towards some of the devastating violence seen in hockey. Grace Under Fire certainly deserves the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval, and it will remain on my bookshelf for years to come as a reminder of how senseless violence in hockey simply begets even more senseless acts.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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