Ellen Etchingham

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Ottawa Senators v Montreal Canadiens - Game One

The first round of the playoffs is peak season for controversial hits in the NHL. Teams, eager to set the tone and not yet worn down by weeks of pain and dread, play more aggressively than they did in the death throes of the regular season or will when the Conference Final is on the line. There are a lot of men skating around these days looking to send a message, and because half the teams are already gone, when they succeed, far more people are interested than would have been in January. This collision of incentive to hit big and attention to every big hit that happens is the perfect storm of hockey controversy.

It’s irritating, sometimes, this predictable April-May spasm of hand-wringing and hair-tearing over the bloodiness of the game, but it’s also important. The frame-by-frame analysis of specific hits and the intense debate over the language of rules is how we, collectively, make our peace with loving a sport that is directly based on the maiming of human bodies. We, the fans- but also the players and GMs and sponsors and league officials and everyone- can only enjoy hockey insofar as we can draw these ethical boundaries. No wonder we spend so many hours on the cartography of violence.

Of all the hits of the first round, none drew more attention and debate than Eric Gryba’s open-ice hit on Lars Eller in the first game of the Ottawa-Montreal series.  Eller was in a vulnerable position, trying to take a terribly-considered pass from teammate Raphael Diaz.  Gryba caught him unawares, his shoulder at more or less exactly head-height, and sent Eller spinning, unconscious, until his face smashed hard into the ice and… broke.  Badly.

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April is the Cruelest Month

One of the high priests of the Cult of Anaheim engaging in a propitary pre-game ritual.

One of the high priests of the Cult of Anaheim engaging in a propitary pre-game ritual.

I woke up late on Sunday morning, and the first thing I did- before even the shower, the coffee, the slow migration to the couch for a day of under-18s and the very last game of the regular season- was put on my talisman. It’s not much, as talismans go, a single silver charm in the shape of a C with an H inside, but it won’t leave my wrist until the Canadiens leave the postseason. A small, feminine token, maybe, but it’s the only one I have. None of my attempts to grow a playoff beard have ever succeeded.

Around the NHL, Sunday and Monday and yesterday and today, fans are commencing their little rituals. Lucky socks are being dug out of drawers and lucky underwear pulled on, to be worn every day for weeks, or at least until the luck goes bad. Jerseys are being customized to read STANLEY 13 and posters are being painted LEAFS SUCK. Thousands of mock Cups are being made, out of duct tape and tin foil, cake and yarn. Thousands of patches of stubble are being tended. Somewhere out there, a man has a sacrificial octopus in his freezer.

The media will interpret all these rites as indicators of excitement. They’ll film themselves standing in front of screaming hordes painted blue and say, “Bob, spirits are high today in _______ as hockey fans get geared up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs,” and the horde will wave their foam idols high until the final “Back to you” sends the broadcast away to the studio. There will be articles written about how very happy all the fans are that the halcyon days of real hockey competition have at long last arrived.

Bullshit. The rituals and talismans aren’t about excitement. They’re not effusions of pure happiness made flesh and facial hair. They’re wards and protections and sacrifices, and they don’t come from joy. They come from fear.

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The most important thing to remember about Hegel is that he looked like an apprehensive garden gnome.

Every now and then, someone accuses me of over-intellectualizing hockey. They wander into my posts from God-knows-where and turn around and around, strewing befuddled comments every which way. “Why are you talking about Arabic poetry? What the fuck is up with this Taoism? This isn’t some fancypants French salon, my girl, this is hockey. It’s about sweat and facepunching and manly grunts, not ideas.”

This is, of course, completely wrong. Everything people do, certain reflexive bodily functions aside, is ideas. EVERY-F*#KING-THING. Just because many of those ideas are seldom or never fully articulated, laid out bare on a page for all to see, doesn’t mean they’re not there. They’re embodied ideas, ideas of practice and discipline rather than pen and paper, but ideas they are.

The evolution of hockey is also the evolution of ideas about hockey, and as such it bears a certain resemblance to the evolution of other kinds of ideas. And when one is talking about the evolution of ideas in the 21st century Western world, one eventually has to talk about Hegel.

For the record, I do not especially want to talk about Hegel, because Hegel was a nineteenth century German philosopher, and there is no more certain path to madness than nineteenth century German philosophy. It’s the gateway drug of insanity: people always insist they’re just going to try it once or twice, then ten years and two advanced degrees later you find them curled up in a corner of the library muttering untranslatable 35-letter-words with random capitalization, like Tim Thomas on ketamine.

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There is an idea- or perhaps nothing so fully formed as an idea, but a sense or an impression- that advanced statistics are a new thing in hockey. The debate between quantitative and qualitative methodologies is often framed, in a narrative that goes back at least to Moneyball, as one of the new vs. the old, a bright revolution of young radicals setting fire to the staid customs of their fathers’ age.

This is both true and untrue. True, in that before recent years there existed neither the data nor the technology necessary to do the kind of work currently being done. No matter what one’s values or interests, it simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s to count all shots directed at net for every team in the NHL, then to aggregate and distribute that data widely among many different thinkers, all with extensive computing resources at their disposal. The kind of large-scale, league-wide, multi-year analyses that constitute the meat and muscle of contemporary fancystats are a product of the internet as much as of a new ideology.

But despite their limitations, there were plenty of premodern hockey men who experimented with using quantitative methods to get beneath the skin of the game. Conn Smythe, who was so traditional that his views virtually define tradition in Canadian hockey, who believed hard in good bloodlines and beating people in alleys, recorded all Leafs games on film and rewatched the footage, noting who was on the ice for which types of events in pursuit of objective data about quality of competition. Roger Neilson, dissatisfied with shots on net as a measure of team offense, kept his own count of on-ice scoring chances. And, of course, the metric for shots directed at net is named Corsi for a reason. While technological limitations made it nearly impossible for early innovators to do work on the advanced statistics of the NHL as a whole, it is clear that within franchises, some GMs and coaches have been pursuing fancystats for several decades.

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Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers

P.J. Stock wants Don Cherry’s job.

True, I don’t know this for a fact, having never been to the bucolic paradise that is the inside of Mr. Stock’s head, but let’s consider the evidence. Firstly, there’s the clothes. True, Stock has not gone so far as to come on TV in purple plaid- yet- but he’s clearly laying the groundwork for it. How else to explain the inexplicably popped collars, deep burgundy hues, and disco-shiny fabrics Stock has slowly been working into his wardrobe over the past season, if not as a slow progression towards Cherrywear? Secondly, consider the spluttering. Of all the men in hockey broadcasting, none is more likely to repeat the same point three times in three unfinished sentences than P.J., save for the old man of the first intermission. But the third and most damning piece of evidence for the Cherrification of P.J. Stock is that he’s increasingly drawing Ron MacLean’s patented “there is a crazy person sitting immediately to my left” expression.

That expression was on full display last Saturday evening when, in the Hockey Tonight segment setting up the Habs-Bruins game, Stock launched into yet another of his signature P.K. Subban is everything that’s wrong with hockey rants. For purposes of evidence, I have transcribed this rant and his co-panelists reactions to it:

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Colorado Avalanche


On March 5th, in a game between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a deflected shot to the eye.  This is old news- last month might as well be the 17th century in the information torrent of a hockey season- and, since it looks as though Staal will recover fully, is of little interest to anyone other than fantasy hockeyists and Rangers fans.  It did, however, add some color to the recent Board of Governors meeting, where the subject of a mandatory visor rule was again revisited.  Perhaps in light of Staal’s injury, certainly in light of all the other eye injuries that have befallen important visorless players over the years, the League came out with a strong statement in favor of mandating shields for all new players.

This statement received a wave of support from the hockey commentariat, among whom the mandatory visor rule has long been popular.  But, as always, there’s a catch- despite favoring the rule, the NHL also stated that they wanted to work with the Players’ Association on the issue.  The Players’ Association, as one would expect, promised only to put the matter to their membership for a vote.

Needless to say, the Association’s position was not popular among commentators. The PA has a history of supporting the principle of individual choice when it comes to equipment selection, and all previous votes on mandatory visors have reflected this.  If history is any guide, the PA won’t support the rule and the BOG will drop the issue.  Adam Proteau suggested, paradoxically, that giving players choice was evidence that the League doesn’t care about them.  The astute Ryan Lambert wondered why, immediately after a prolonged, nasty labor dispute, the governors are so willing to play nice with the PA on safety concerns.  If the owners are willing to f*&k the players for fun and profit, why not f*&k them for their own good and the good of the game as well?  Our own Glorious Leader Bourne noted that teams put all sorts of regulations on their employees, and contended that visors should be no different.  At the furthest extreme, Cam Cole waxed nostalgic for the good old days, when the NHL unilaterally imposed whatever rules it wanted without having to consult the players at all.  It would be so much easier, so much better, if the League would just command the players to protect their eyes.

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Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks

If you’re a hockey fan, you’re used to controversial hits.  They happen every night.  If you really wanted to, you could spend all day, every day, all season long doing nothing but watching videos of borderline thwacking and fighting with people on the internet about whether they were dirty or not.

But in last Monday’s Hawks-Oilers game, fans were treated to a rarer spectacle: a controversial non-hit. Nail Yakupov got the puck in the D-zone along the boards.  Daniel Carcillo lined him up from the circle.  Yakupov dished the puck up towards the blue line.  Carcillo decided to finish his check. Yakupov turned back towards the corner and ducked.  Carcillo launched himself, somewhat comically, into brainless glass.  And, at the next whistle, commentator Eddie Olczyk freaked out.

If you are Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers, you cannot do that to a player that’s coming. That’s a dangerous play by Nail Yakupov, because what happens is, when you duck like that, that player is going to go over the top of your shoulder and hit his face or his neck against the boards. To me, that should be a penalty on Yakupov. I see it at the amateur level; I’d like to see USA Hockey and amateur referees take control of that type of play. I hope it’s not being taught by coaches, but that’s a dangerous play. Somebody’s going to get really hurt when a player ducks like that.

Olczyk is right that Yakupov’s decision to duck is potentially dangerous for Carcillo.  If Carcillo is moving a little faster, if Yakupov is a little further off the boards, if the seconds and inches go wrong, Carcillo’s head could have hit that glass in a most icky way. Someone could surely have been hurt.

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