I’ve seen worse boardings.
We’ve all seen worse boardings. After the mid-ice leaping shoulder-to-the-head, the one-foot-from-the-boards check-from-behind is the second most popular controversial hockey play of the year. It’s a play that sits right in the disputed borderlands between the hockey ethics that were and the hockey ethics to come. Some people look at those plays and say that’s a good hard check and fuck the victim for allowing himself to be vulnerable. Others look at them and say it’s a dirty thing and fuck the aggressor for taking advantage of a defenseless opponent. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, and so it goes.
Bernier couldn’t have known exactly what would happen. Although he lined up the hit a good three seconds before connecting, an eternity of hockey-time, although he was planning the thing almost from the blue line, he could not have known then that it would draw a five minute major. He couldn’t have known that he’d catch the head quite so perfectly. He couldn’t have known that Scuderi would bleed. The most he could have known was that it would be a near thing, maybe a controversial thing. Bernier was flying in with every intention of finishing his check on an opponent in a dangerous position. He must have known there was risk. What he didn’t know was that there was risk to him.
Maybe in a dozen alternate hockey universes, Scuderi doesn’t bleed and that isn’t even a penalty. Maybe in October, that’s only two minutes. Maybe in 2005, it’s nothing at all. Maybe the way Steve Bernier grew up you make that hit every day of the week and twice on Sunday and get nothing but praise and adulation for doing so.
But now, in 2012, in the final game of a particularly blood-spattered playoff run, in a season where the NHL has seen some of its greatest heroes and villains alike laid low by nebulous post-concussion symptoms and hockey’s hungry ghosts are still haunting the pages of the New York Times, things are different. Yesterday, maybe that wasn’t a five-minute major. Today, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, it is.
Sitting in the visitors dressing room, alone, and hearing the crowd howl with raw joy for the third time in five minutes, Steve Bernier must have hurt a kind of hurting beyond what most of us can imagine. Every player has had the experience of getting unlucky with a hit or a hook and forcing their team into a rough kill, and that hurts. Every player has made a bad decision and put their team down a goal, and that hurts even worse. But to put your team- a team that has staved off elimination twice in a row- down 0-3 in the sixth game of the Stanley Cup Finals? To essentially lose the Cup for them on the basis of a play you’ve made a hundred times and never really suffered for? That is more than painful. That is an existential crisis. That is a summer of sleepless nights.
And that is what has to happen for hockey’s values to change.
Pain is the heart of change. When we talk about reforming the game, we often talk about rules as if they had the power to deter all by themselves, but it is not the threat of punishments that transforms behavior. It is the reality of punishments. The threat alone is nothing, because threats can be avoided, dodged, mitigated. No threat is ever consistently and thoroughly made real- not in hockey rules, not even in social rules. Consistency of discipline is a noble ideal, but in a world where people still get away with real crime despite the awesome power of the state standing against it, it is unrealistic to assume that all hockey-crime will ever be fully and consistently punished. No matter where you draw the line between a legal play and an illegal play, there will always be a hundred times a year when the seconds and inches hover somewhere in-between. There will always be some controversy.
But where consistency fails, pain can make up the difference. For rules to work, especially new rules, especially changed rules, people have to get hurt. Someone has to get caught in the teeth of the new rule, chewed up and spit out and left broken and mangled for all the world to see. Without the pain and trauma that victims have suffered in the course of ‘good hockey plays’, change would never have been necessary. Without the pain and trauma suffered by aggressors in the course of being punished for formerly ‘good hockey plays’, change will never be realized. Because perfect consistency is an illusion, there needs to be something else that pushes players from wanting to play even close to the line. There has to be a little bit of dread. There has to be a cautionary tale, like the horrible stories of burned and beaten children that 19th century parents used to warn their kids away from playing with matches and walking off with strangers.
When Raffi Torres got handed 25 games after his hit to Hossa, some people decried the suspension as inconsistent with the previous discipline he’d received for his previous style of hitting, but that isn’t really the problem. It just so happens that the shifting values of NHL discipline have shifted right through the middle of Torres’ game, and what he could formerly get away with is no longer acceptable. If anything, Shanahan gave him too much time to adjust, too many warnings and fines, too much charity. He thought he could make Raffi understand the new rules with threats rather than pain. But unless he had the intention of grandfathering Torres in with some sort of special high/late hitting privileges until the end of his career, there was inevitably going to come a time when Raffi would need to be smacked down hard.
The problem with supplementary discipline, though, is that it doesn’t create very good cautionary tales. The reason change-through-pain works is not just because it hurts the punished but because it hurts the rest of the hockey world to see. The story has to make us cringe and wince and shiver, it has to scare people. Long suspensions aren’t necessarily scary. They don’t give the rules enough bite. Most suspended players are lower-tier guys, and when they’re gone from the roster they’re out of sight and out of mind. In time, draconian suspensions will only incentivize teams to outsource their concussive violence to a succession of disposable low-end call-ups who won’t be missed when they’re sitting twenty games at a stretch, who can be easily replaced by any number of eager, reckless young bodies willing to play on the edge and risk suspension in exchange for a shot at The Show. Matt Cooke is everyone’s favorite example of a player who was reformed by suspensions, but his reform was a collective endeavor- his coach and his team wanted him to change, and put in the time and the effort to fix his game. Do most teams care enough about most of their 3rd and 4th line players to do that? Or will they simply use them until they reach the end of their disciplinary rope, and then find a substitute?
Of all the players in the hockey world, only maybe ten are scared of ending up like Torres. But everyone is scared of ending up like Bernier. Hell, I’m scared are ending up like Bernier and I don’t even play for real. Because what Bernier did isn’t the accumulation of a career of borderline plays, it’s one stupid mistake, it’s one common decision that went wrong. It’s the sort of thing anyone might have done. And now, it’s the sort of thing everyone might think twice about doing.
We’ve all seen worse boardings. We’ve all seen guys finish their checks that way, and until now, it was just a matter of arguing and maybe three games or something down the road. But now? Now it’s a matter of the fucking Stanley Cup. Now it’s a matter of everything players play for and everything fans watch to see. Now it’s a matter of letting down your teammates, your coach, your GM, your owner, your fans, your family. Now, when a guy is three seconds away from that hit, back at the blue line, maybe he knows something he couldn’t have known before. Maybe now he knows that if he makes that hit wrong, he could lose his team this game and more besides. Maybe he feels a little bit of dread.
I’ve argued in this space before that on-ice discipline and the reintroduction of two-minute majors would be far more effective ways of transforming the practice of hockey hitting than supplementary discipline, and the contrast between the Torres punishment and the Bernier one are an instructive piece of evidence for that. Being suspended is the sort of thing there’s a script for, a script Raffi Torres memorized long ago- goodhockeyplayfinishedmycheckunfortunateconsequncesblahblahblah. He says the words and his teammates back him up and he does his time with his head held high. But losing your team the Stanley Cup? There’s no script that can deaden that pain, there’s no way to rewrite that boarding as a heroic narrative of Ye Olde Time Hockey. There’s no way to take off those goat horns. That’s the kind of story hockey dads will tell their reckless children on the eve of the big game to warn them against the dangers of crossing the line when championships are on the line. That’s the kind of story that can counter the valorization of finishing your check and intimidating the opposition. It’s the cautionary tale we all need to make the rules real.