Hotheads on ice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 12:00am

Every few years, Canadians, being Canadians, agonise about the blood spilled on the ice in their national sport. (And no, I am not talking about seal hunting, but hockey.) Someone is hurt, some outrage is committed with a stick against a skull, and a fevered nation rises in indignation. Editorial writers demand reforms, and parents lament how 'you can't take a kid to a rink anymore, for all the violence'.

But we have heard it all before. We heard it in 1905, when 24-year-old Alcide Laurin died on the ice after being clubbed with a stick by Allan Loney, 19, in a 'friendly' game in rural Ontario. We heard it in 1955, when the legendary Maurice 'Rocket' Richard clobbered an opponent, decked a referee and started a riot that spilled out into the streets of Montreal.

And we heard it last month, when a frustrated skater from Hamilton, Ontario, named Alexander Perezhogin swung his stick into the face of an opponent. His victim fell to the ice, unconscious, his body twitching. Millions saw the attack as the tape was played repeatedly on the TV news.

But the outrage passes almost as quickly as the wounds are stitched. Loney was acquitted of murder almost a century ago, Richard and Perezhogin were suspended, and the game continued much like before. The mandarins of hockey refuse to do what all other professional team sports have done: ban fighting and punish offenders severely. 'You consent to assault when you lace up your skates,' said Dave 'Tiger' Williams, another legendary hockey enforcer.

The patron saint of hockey mayhem is commentator Don Cherry, who sneers at both pacifism and protective helmets. He thinks they are for wimps and 'Europeans'.

In a recent NHL game, referees called a total of 491 minutes in penalties. Do the maths. In a game lasting 60 minutes, mayhem on the ice resulted in more than eight hours of penalty time. And this was no aberration. On-ice violence fills seats.

Violence produces a glorious 'ka-ching' at the box office. The late Conn Smythe, one-time owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, put it nicely: 'We've got to stamp out this kind of thing or people are going to keep buying tickets.' The Hockey News found that 75 per cent of its readers 'love' or 'like' fighting. These are the same people who take pride in Canada's reputation for international peacekeeping. This attitude is a powerful stimulant for athletes, and it feeds their aggression on the ice. But the players can turn it on or off, at will: in international hockey tournaments, where fighting is banned, the Canadian teams are paragons of civility, and they still win.

It is a story as old as the Roman Coliseum: the crowd rules.