The Boston Bruins are the toughest team in the NHL.
The above statement is both true and untrue. It would be difficult to prove it by any objective measure. In the era of their dominance, they’ve never led the League in any of the standard metrics of thuggery. They don’t have the most fights, the most hits, or the most penalty minutes. They’re not the biggest team or the dirtiest. Although they appear with some regularity in the Annals of Controversial Incidents, they’re not even close to cornering the market on terrifying plays. If a skeptical alien came down to Earth today and asked us to demonstrate, with clear logic and pure evidence, that the Bruins are tougher than everyone else, we would disappoint it badly.
And yet, somehow, this is something we all know. Not because we have data or proof, but because we’ve seen the games, and in seeing the games, we see something in Boston- not constantly, but consistently- that speaks to us of violence. Sometimes it whispers, other times it screams, but it’s always there. It’s in Chara’s mad eyes, in Lucic’s f*&k-you snarl, in Marchand’s shameless dirtiness, in Thornton’s old-school pugnacity. Even their players who don’t especially represent any kind of danger or aggression it in their own game carry these traces, as if it’s rubbed off on them like dandelion pollen. They have the swagger of men who won’t back away from a fight, and are apt to start one for no good reason.
Last night, a friend who’s hockey fanaticism is so casual it barely even counts as attention- I dunno, the Bruins just seem like dicks. I don’t like that guy, I don’t like the way he plays, I don’t like his face. You know the one. This morning, a headline in my inbox- The Chara Factor looms over Final. When we speak of the Bruins, we speak of them in the language appropriate to school bullies and the Red Menace, without even realizing that we’re doing so. Their toughness has become a social fact without ever being an actual one. We don’t know it for any specific reason, we just know. It is known.
Because this toughness is such a well-established feature of the Bruins, it factors heavily in any and all explanations for their success. Outside of their local media, you can’t hardly find a game story or series account of anything the Bruins have done in the past five years without violence being referenced. Traditionally, of course, the story is that they win because they outmuscle or intimidate the opposition. But in the series against the Penguins, where Pittsburgh came out swinging in anticipation, the story was inverted. This time, the Bruins won because they weren’t violent. But if they had been… well, that that would be the reason they won too.
Bruins narratives, then, are a great example of the way that toughness and intimidation have come to function as unfalsifiable explanations in hockey. No matter who did the gooning or what the result, if there was any kind of imbalance in aggression, that will be the game story. Play an opponent aggressively and win: you intimidated them. Play an opponent aggressively and lose: you weren’t disciplined enough. If you play clean and win, kudos to you for not letting those bastards throw you off your game! Play clean and lose, well, aren’t you a bunch of choking cowards? That expressions of violence and emotion might be present in a game and yet have no meaningful impact on the outcome is inconceivable to most hockey minds, but in trying to use toughness to somehow explain all results, they castrate it, and now, it explains none. Give me a game with more than a couple of hits and at least one fight, and I could make up a traditional hockey story that says: because violence, and it would go down easy. Useless, but easy.
The unfalsifiability of toughness explanations is compounded by the fact that no research on the matter has been able to confirm that any of the gestures we associate with intimidation actually correlate with, much less cause, winning. At best, we have a problematic study that suggested that scoring tends to be higher after a fight, but since the effect applies to both teams regardless of who “won” the match and could be due to special teams effects (since it is not uncommon for fighting majors to be associated with other penalties), it’s not much of an argument that you can increase your chances of winning by engaging in fisticuffs. Hits, being the exclusive province of the team without possession, seem to correlate more with weak play than strong. As hockey has evolved, intimidation has gotten pushed further and further down the roster, and now the players with the most PIMs for their icetime no longer ride shotgun on the starring lines, but play seven minutes a night or not at all. As much as every GM and coach in the NHL still values toughness, it’s hard to find evidence that it makes winning.
This is not to say that intimidation doesn’t have any impact on outcomes, only that we don’t know very well what kind of impact it has. Our common tropes about how toughness works do not actually explain the things they purport to explain. We have a lot of stories we tell each other, and those stories are very logical and satisfying, but we don’t know if they’re true. We don’t know very well what the differences are between the times when a surplus of aggression helps winning and the times when it hurts it, nor which types of aggression are beneficial and which are detrimental, nor how a team can know and control any of these things before the game in order to increase their chances of victory. Right now, as far the analysis of winning and losing goes, toughness-explanations are no better than sledgehammers or fairy tales, and in a world where team-building is increasingly based on the fine-grained analysis of data and video, the old macho WIN BY HITTING arguments are going to have to be either profoundly revised or altogether abandoned.
So what is it good for, this heady melange of swagger and glower and grit and facepunching? What is it, if it’s not a way to win?
Consider this possibility: toughness in hockey isn’t a strategy. It’s an aesthetic.
First principles: hockey is a sport. Sports are a form of entertainment that encompass both a game element- a puzzle, a challenge, a problem to be solved- and a narrative element. The game element is all about trying to win, but the narrative part isn’t at all. Sports stories don’t need to be stories about winning, and in fact many of the best sports stories aren’t. They’re about the experiences people have in the process, the existential struggles, interpersonal confrontations, hard-won triumphs and abject failures. They’re about what it feels like to play this particular game with its particular culture and rules.
Hockey is an art. The reason we have it- play it, watch it, talk about it, broadcast it, spend money on it- is because it creates moments of intense aesthetic experience, gives us images and ideas that move our minds and hearts in particular ways. If you want to step back from sports and ask The Big Why Question: why are these stupid games worth all the resources we collectively spend on them?, the answer is exactly the same as it is for any of the traditionally-defined arts: because they are one of the ways that we create and share emotional experiences, and the sharing of emotional experiences is one of the major things that makes life worth living. Like painting, like theater, like music, hockey is a way that people take material objects (sticks and ice, paint and canvas, strings and wood) and use them to take experiences out of themselves and put them into other people. It’s one of the most universal things humans do, and we’ve been doing it with sports for just as long as we’ve been doing it with “fine arts”.
The cultural work that hockey does, it’s “function” if you want to be crude about it, is the production and dissemination of aesthetics. Now, when I say aesthetics, I don’t mean mere prettiness. Sure, hockey’s got some prettiness- when we fawn over Pavel Datsyuk compilations on YouTube, we’re savoring hockey’s version of raw beauty- but just like any other art, the most moving or important things are not necessarily the most conventionally beautiful. There are aesthetics of ugliness, and horror, and pain, and tragedy, and a great many artists have done a great many wonderful things exploring them.
Hockey does some of its best work with the aesthetics of violence. The whole massive spectrum of it, encompassing aggression and protection, cruelty and mercy, honor and shame, intimidation, fear, and endurance. Since the very beginning of the sport, hockey has told these kinds of stories, again and again and again, in every possible permutation. It’s told tales that glorify violence, tales that condemn it, tales that sit uncomfortably in the grey area in between. It’s given us images of men triumphing through cruelty and triumphing against it, of bodies destroyed by pain and bodies that refuse to be. In a hundred years, this sport has provided its cultures with boundless material for understanding, imagining, debating, and defying violence. Look at a hockey broadcast; see how much time is given to the display of these things. It’s not because they win games. I mean, maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but that’s not why we care. That’s not why they do it, and that’s not why we want to see it.
We need aesthetics of violence, because violence is about pain, and pain is something we all need to understand. We need something in our culture that tells stories about it. Inflicting pain, enduring pain, owning pain. Mastering it. Making it- this thing that all humans instinctively fear, this thing that entire moral philosophies have been invented to avoid- yours. This is a fantasy many of us have and a narrative most of us will sometimes need. Maybe it was needed more when hockey players were birthed in mining towns and logging camps and fans came to the games from the factories and docks, when everyone who came to the barn came from a world of grinding, exhausting, injurious physical labor. Once upon a time it may have been easier to empathize with the idea that sometimes you need to take a blow to make a living- or deliver one to protect you and yours.
The kind of aesthetics- the emotional moments- that hockey provides are not exactly flourishing in the modern world, which is perhaps why the defenders of old-time hockey are so terrified of seeing them eroded further. This kind of art is important to them. They need it, and don’t want it to be stripped away just because some other fans are unmoved. So they try to pretend it’s necessary for winning and losing, because no one will have sympathy if you simply say, “it gives me the sort of feelings I want to feel.”
Which is a shame, because providing the sort of feelings people want to feel is one of the best reasons for anything to exist. People- including players, in fact, especially players- find hockey’s narratives of toughness deeply fulfilling, both personally and professionally. This is the heart of the Bruins mystique. This team, more than any other in the contemporary period, has tapped into hockey’s aesthetic of violence. It’s figured out how to draw, in a very authentic way, on long-established, deep-rooted traditions that resonate across their roster, the fanbase, and the whole hockey community. Tarasov said that the most important thing for a player was to have a sense of identity, a sense of the role he plays on the team not only in the tactical sense but in the theatrical one- a sense of style, if you will, or character. The Bruins have managed to create that sense of identity for their whole team, and in doing so, have pulled together a performance that everyone, whether with adulation or revulsion, is watching. Who gives a fuck if it helps them win? It makes them better anyway.