As Hockey Gets More Violent, More People Are Watching: Coincidence?

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A conversation about the NHL's thrilling post-season

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation,Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) talk about the NHL postseason.


Hey, guys,

In the early 1980s, Canadian author and essayist Mordecai Richler penned a seminal piece for Inside Sports magazine entitled "What Hockey Needs is More Violence." The story was witty, imaginative, and biting, irony dripping from the conceit like blood from a goon's busted face.

If this year's NHL postseason is any indication, however, I think Richler's satirical arrows may have been misplaced.

Violence is up. Way up. As of Monday—roughly halfway through the first round of the playoffs— there have been 11 postseason fights. By comparison, the 2011 playoffs featured 12 brawls total. Fights per game during the regular season? Only 0.49, a five-year low. Fights per game during the playoffs? A reported 0.89. Almost double. And that's just fisticuffs. Rough, dirty, and downright nasty play also seems to be surging: There's Nashville's Shea Weber kicking off the chase for the Stanley Cup in earnest with an already infamous plexiglass face-slam of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg; Vancouver star Henrik Sedin being sent to the locker room after literally taking it on the chin; a New York Rangers-Ottawa Senators series that could double as an MMA pay-per-view; and an ultra-physical Pittsburgh Penguins-Phildelphia Flyers series that has seen skilled superstar Sidney Crosby—no, really—get into a tete-a-tete with fellow non-enforcer Claude Giroux. As Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said about the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia matchup, "It's going to be a bloodbath."

And to think: That quote was uttered before the playoffs began.

Given the longtime hand-wringing over violence in hockey—and the current concern about concussions and brain trauma, amplified by Crosby's ongoing head injury issues and the high-profile deaths of three enforcers over the summer, including beloved Rangers player Derek Boogaard—one might assume that all of the pummeling would be bad for the game's health, leading fans to turn off and drop out. Au contrarie. Like the violence, playoff ratings are up. Way up. Game 3 between the Penguins and Flyers, for example, notched a 2.3 overnight rating -- up 77 percent from comparable coverage in 2011, and NBC's best ratings for a playoff game since 2006. Across the board, the network's early playoff ratings are up 22 percent.

This is no coincidence.

Hockey fans like violence. So do the people who play and run the sport. This is no great secret: just watch "Slap Shot." The NHL fined Weber a whopping $2,500 for bouncing Zetterberg's head like a basketball; Nashville coach Barry Trotz publicly praised the play; the team's promotions department reportedly put out a celebratory head-smash video and dubbed the practice "Webbering." So it goes. Gary Bettman and company have never seriously cracked down on fighting and brutality. The league might be dumb to put teams in places like Phoenix; it isn't stupid. The game is inherently violent—like football, only with sticks instead of tackling. Which is not to say that all hockey fans and players are bloodthirsty rubberneckers, gleefully waiting for the next human pileup. They're not. Hockey's primal, essentially appeal lies in the willingness of its participants to endure physical peril and punishment, to sacrifice and suffer in pursuit of victory.

The above dynamic creates a uniquely intense experience, infusing grown mean chasing a puck around the ice with visceral meaning. It's why the NHL arguably has the best postseason in sports, and why hockey really does need more violence.

Hampton, am I way off base about the place of violence in hockey? And do the NHL playoffs trump all others?

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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