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

At the end of a particularly gripping episode of Star Trek (the original series, of course) Kirk and Spock are talking about how the universe was saved because a man named Lazarus sacrificed himself. "The universe is safe, Jim," Spock says. "For you and me," Kirk responds with the gravitas that only a young Bill Shatner could pull off. "But what of Lazarus?"

In the NHL, Lazarus is Derek Boogaard. And Rick Rypien. And Wade Belak. Three enforcers, three men dead before the age of 36. No matter how many fans lustily cheer for more as the NHL playoffs devolves into testosterone-on-ice, you can bet there will be no cheering from Boogaard's family, or Rypien's, or Belak's.

The near-universal approval of the fight-filled first week of the NHL playoffs, from fans to coaches to Patrick himself, is honestly mind-boggling to me. I didn't grow up with hockey and I don't consider myself particularly violent, so maybe I'm just not the sport's target audience. But I watch hockey because the fact that a goal (a rare and valuable commodity akin to runs in baseball) can be scored at any moment is thrilling. I don't watch to see hair-pulling, or cross checks to the throat, or absurdly tone-deaf excuses by the increasing numbers of players who appear hell-bent on seriously injuring their peers.

"Anybody who has played the game might understand it," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said of Coyote forward Raffi Torres' hit on Chicago forward Marian Hossa, which sent Hossa to the ER. "But a lot of people who haven't been out there and haven't had a hit, they don't understand that you can't just in full motion stop - 'I can't hit that guy because I'm going too fast.'"

Here's video of the hit. What actually happened is that Torres left his feet to hit Hossa as hard as he possibly could in the jaw with his shoulder, more than a second after the puck had left the area. To say otherwise is obtuse at best and borderline criminal at worst because of the message it sends to young hockey players: Send a guy to the hospital, and your coach will still defend you.

It says volumes about the culture of hockey that fans and players are so defensive of the hits. Because in reality, they are no different than the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal that has outraged the country and the NFL. The only difference is that instead of a thousand bucks, illegal hits and brutal fights earn NHLers adulation from home crowds and fervent respect from teammates. And that's a semantic difference at best.


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