Question of Honour or Savagery?

By Jason Menard

Although the game’s played on ice, it seems that nothing heats up a Canadian’s passion than taking a critical look at the game of hockey.

Response to a column that I wrote in the Aug. 11, 2005 edition of The National Post, has been swift, passionate, and polarized. The column, which examined the questionable timing of the NHL’s reinstatement of the Vancouver Canucks’ Todd Bertuzzi on the same day as Wayne Gretzky’s announcement of his return to the game, was met with approval by some, but with vehement disapproval by others.

And what surprised me about the e-mailers who disagreed with me was not that they disagreed with the timing of the announcement, or with the actual point of my column – they were passionately opposed to the suspension in the first place, essentially saying Steve Moore, the object of Bertuzzi’s lack of affection, deserved it.

It seems that, according to the e-mailers, Bertuzzi did nothing more than avenge hockey’s karmic gods, which Moore angered by elbowing Bertuzzi’s teammate Markus Naslund. That, in the context of hockey, Bertuzzi’s actions were honourable and that he was being a stand-up teammate.

In fact, one respondent actually referred to Mr. Bertuzzi’s attack of Steve Moore as a “mild take down of the NHL’s honour code.” If Bertuzzi’s attack was mild, apparently more serious infractions should be met with death in the future.

How does the culture of hockey change when some of its fans and some of its players still ascribe to this barbaric system of retribution. The hockey gods must be of the Old Testament variety if this eye-for-an-eye honour code is how they must be appeased. And if the fans are willing to circle the wagons – or even start forming a lynch mob – to avenge their fallen heroes, then perhaps the game has deeper problems than a new CBA and a stricter enforcement of the rules can fix.

The idea of payback has been a part of hockey for generations. The Gordie Howes and Maurice Richards would dole out retribution on their own and were as tough as they were talented. Later on, the role of the enforcer developed – which explained why Dave Semenko was able to ride shotgun with Wayne Gretzky all those years – to allow the skill players to be skilled without fear of the opposing team taking liberties with them.

Bertuzzi, the player, signaled a throwback to the players of yesteryear — big, tough, talented, with hands as soft around the net as they were tough in a fight. And, it’s true that his act against Moore was done to avenge Moore’s hit on Naslund that put him out of commission. But the thing about honour is that it’s best served face-to-face. Not from behind, bulldogging your opponent to the ice face-first.

The players of yesteryear had a respect for each other. Whether it was borne from the lack of helmets or from the fact that they weren’t set for life with their rookie contract, they played the game tough, sometimes dirty, but not with the intention of blindsiding an opponent. Even the so-called goons respected the game enough to only go after each other.

The problem with the way hockey’s unspoken honour code is being interpreted is that many of the fans – and players themselves – forget that a major component of honour is respect. Respect for the game, respect for the fans, and respect for your fellow opponents.

I can understand the idea of standing up for yourself and your teammates. It’s one of the things that make this team sport so attractive – but there are limits. Just because somebody cuts my wife off on the highway doesn’t mean I get to run them off the road the next time I see them.

Hockey’s honour code does not foster the lawless society that some of the e-mailers believe. It does not allow for vigilante justice of this nature. While Bertuzzi’s intent may have been honourable, the way he enacted his frontier justice was not. Bertuzzi’s heart was in the right place, but his head and body weren’t on the same page. And even the fact that Moore was skating away from the confrontation does not justify jumping on his back.

Of course, it seems a lot of Bertuzzi fans would like nothing more to jump on Moore’s back along with him. The game of hockey is built upon the foundations of speed, beauty, and toughness – not savagery. And while honour has its place, it can’t exist without respect.

If the fans and the players lose that respect for one another, then our beloved game of hockey will devolve into nothing more than a bloodsport.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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