On June 4th, in what has to be one of the most safety-conscious competition committee meetings in its history, the NHL decided to begin experimenting with hybrid icing. The move was long overdue. Touch icing is probably one of the most broadly unpopular features of the NHL brand of hockey. Nobody likes it. I’m pretty sure there are more supporters of the instigator and the puck-over-glass penalty than there are of touch icing. Unlike most safety issues, it wasn’t only tender-hearted New-Age fans who hated watching players race at full speed into the back boards just to end the play. One of the greatest opponents of the practice was Don Cherry, representing a whole faction of old-school, traditionalist, good hard hockey fans who were similarly appalled by this dangerous practice.
This is odd, because Cherry and his ilk are definitely not against hockey players getting hurt. We are speaking of a man who opposed visors for years and holds up Scott Stevens as a model body-checker. He’s all for hockey players getting hurt in all kinds of ways, including many that normal human beings would consider stupid and unnecessary. He’ll advocate for guys getting punched in the face for saying something mean, yet when it comes to touching the puck for an icing call, that’s too much. That’s the one thing in hockey that’s not worth the injuries it causes.
Why? What makes touch icing an unacceptable cause of harm, in a game with thousands of acceptable and even beloved causes of harm? It’s not how bad or frequent the injuries are. Although the potential is certainly there, there’s never been an epidemic of careers ended by touch icing. If the concern was purely player safety, we’d be revamping bodychecking standards rather than experimenting with hybrid icing.
This is another place where we see aesthetics at work in hockey’s attitude towards violence. The difference between touch icing injuries and other sorts isn’t the harm itself, it’s the storyline that goes with them. The Don Cherrys of the world don’t just want pain, they want aesthetically satisfying pain. They want pain that means something. Touch icing is an overwhelmingly anticlimactic phenomenon. It’s players running a great risk in pursuit of a completely deflating whistle, and even on the rare occasions it’s beaten, there’s seldom much dramatic payoff. Icings are boring, period, and adding a footrace element doesn’t make them any less so. It’s not the danger itself that turns people off. It’s the dullness.