Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

New York Times series tells why hockey is dying

Growing up in the 1970s, my dream was to be a defenseman for the New York Rangers. I also wanted to play second base for the Mets. I did neither.

A series of articles in The New York Times is detailing the sad history of a hockey “enforcer” who died recently. The story of Derek Boogaard is a cautionary tale, but it’s also a sign of the decline of the National Hockey League.

The article is a great piece of journalism. Then again, I am very, very biased in favor of New York Times stories.

In the 1970s, the main concern was that hockey had become too violent and too focused on fighting, and not enough on the skills that made a hockey player good. Stick-handling, checking, shooting and skating seemed even back then to have given way to the pugilistic skills on the ice. In the 2011 story, we learn that Boogaard was a pretty mediocre hockey player whose main job was to beat the bejesus out of the other teams’ enforcers, whose job was to fight, not score goals or defend on the breakaway or fire the puck at the goaltender.

Not much has changed in 40 years, it seems. I remember reading as a kid in the Reader’s Digest about parents who dragged their sons away from hockey games that turned into giant brawls on the ice, and there was a general manager who bragged that he wanted players who, when facing raw red meat, would jump on it like a wild animal.

Then as now, teams are celebrated for their prowess at fisticuffs, not the power play. It’s so sad.

I remember watching a Stanley Cup final with Walter, a neighbor of mine from Lake Worth, Fla., back when I lived in that area. Walter loved hockey, and enjoyed sitting with me to watch it. I loved to hear his stories of the Merchant Marines and Navy in World War II. We saw the Florida Panthers play one year, probably 1998 or so, and it seemed like anyone who touched the puck was slammed into the boards by members of the other team.

Hockey had devolved into a mess of flying bodies, and a recent film on HBO, “Broad Street Bullies,” celebrated the brawling of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s and the hope they gave the city during tough economic times. Oh, yeah, the Flyers won the Stanley Cup, too.

The game of hockey was no longer about 3-on-2 breakaways and slap or snap shots and saves, but who could hit who the hardest. Sure, some contact is inevitable in a sport like hockey, but contact for the sake of contact turned the games into slugfests that were fun for some, but boring for those purists who wanted to see hockey.

The Times notes in its series that fighting is prohibited in hockey at the college and international levels. Other sports have heavy penalties for fighting on the field.

Some people say that fights are an essential part of the game, and it seems that people go to the games to see the fights. That’s a shame. Hockey can be a fast, exciting sport without being a bloody mess, I think. And teaching kids that the way to advance in the sport is to pummel another player senseless as well as toothless is horrifying.

As a kid, I remember reading “Play the Man” by Brad Park, a defenseman for the New York Rangers. Among the many scenes he described was one where another Rangers player got into a fight and ended up getting crowned on the head by his opponent’s stick. Park was horrified to reveal that he was told that the impact of the stick on the head had driven pieces of the player’s skull into his brain. The player eventually came back, first skating tentatively onto the ice.

Today, stories of players continuing after losing teeth and having their faces nearly demolished in fights are common, even in the age of helmets and facemasks being worn by all players, not just goaltenders.

The biggest fear seems to not be catching a puck in the puss but a fist to the face, and helmets – according to the Times story – are considered for wimps.

Putting an end to fighting and enforcers might disappoint those hoping for blood at a hockey game, but let’s hope the NHL comes to its senses and saves the sport of hockey for future generations.

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December 7, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , ,

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