Fighting Night in Canada

“How can you tell a Canadian from an American? Step on his toe. The Canadian will say ‘sorry.’” This is an old cliché and fits with Canada’s “inner archetype” of itself (see Movement). Unassuming, law abiding, and unfailingly polite is how we see ourselves. By and large, I would say this is fairly accurate and it is not surprising our nations founders held up “Peace, Order, and Good Government” as the ideals our nation would uphold.

Because of this archetype, what I am about to suggest may come as a shock to many of you in Canada. Canada is an extremely violent culture that not only condones and tolerates violence but outright celebrates fighting. On any Saturday in any city in Canada, like clockwork, somewhere there will be a fight. I only have anecdotal evidence but I have witnessed and occasionally been involuntarily directly involved in more violent confrontations in Canada than in any other nation I’ve traveled too. This includes the U.S. (though I suspect they are close to us).

Look at our national sport where so many of its heroes are missing teeth from brawls on the ice. What is the penalty for this? Five minutes on the bench. And anyone who watches the game knows this is just for the “drop the gloves” type of fight. The occasional punch to the head is accepted as part of the game and often goes un-penalised. What other sport has such a light penalty for beating up another player. None. The only exceptions are sports where that is the goal (boxing, ultimate fighting etc). Every other sport would eject the player from the game, suspend and fine the player. Remember the outrage against the soccer player who head butted the chest of his opponent during the World cup final? That would never happen in hockey, “come on he barely touched him” would be the crowd’s reaction. Even football a full contact sport has serious consequences for anyone who punches another player. Why is the penalty so lax when it occurs on the ice? The ice is arguably much more dangerous than grass or turf especially if an unprotected head strikes it. Players on skates are also much more likely to fall. It happens every game and in almost every fight. So why is fighting, which has the possibility for serious injury not seriously discouraged? What does this say about the league?

The audience of course enjoys the spectacle. They will pound the glass hoping for blood and applaud with enthusiasm for the home team gladiator as he takes out his opponent. What does that say about the audience?

I used to get caught up it in too. Especially if the one getting his ass kicked was a “hockey villain”. These depend on the team you cheer for of course and one team’s hero is another’s villain. I completely understand the vicarious thrill that comes from watching two grown men exchange blows. I also understand the entertainment value. It’s kind of like WWF wrestling but not fake and more enjoyable because someone, hopefully “the bad guy,” is getting hurt. What does that say about me?

In my early 20s after being involved in a couple fist fights of my own (always involuntarily) I realized the truth. Fighting is stupid. People get hurt and there isn’t any reason or excuse for any of it. All that other stuff, especially its entertainment value for spectators is something that speaks to the lowest part of our natures. Fighting is wrong. If fighting is wrong then it is also wrong when it takes place on the ice. I can’t say for sure whether hockey actively encourages fighting in the culture at large or whether fighting is so prevalent in Canadian culture that it shows up on the ice. Regardless, we should not encourage fighting anywhere on the ice or off. There should be real penalties in both cases, but right now this is not the case. Why?

As I write this my eye is sore and purple because as I was walking home from a bar a random dude ran up to me, grabbed me by the coat (hockey style) and threw a punch. I was lucky he only partially connected. Had he hit me full on I would have been unconscious on the ground. Who knows? Maybe even with a broken neck if I fell awkwardly enough. Fight or flight adrenaline was pumping into my brain and in that moment I did something that was very hard to do, especially after his fist had glanced off my left eyebrow. I looked him in the eye and said “I’m not going to fight you.” He didn’t let go of me so I reached into my pocket grabbed my house keys and if necessary I was going to hit him with my fist and metal key ring so I could get away. This also felt awful.

Another man came along the scene so I called him over and he talked the guy down and led him away. I couldn’t help thinking it was similar to a referee stepping in to break up a hockey fight. I left quickly and all the way home I thought about calling the police to press charges. After talking with my father I realised that this course of action wouldn’t be productive. It’s my word against his, and he won’t remember it. He was that drunk. Sterling mentioned this morning that the police would probably not even bother to file the report. Why? Because Fight culture is so common in Canada it has become routine and except in the most extreme circumstances is not worthy of investigation. A fight happens every Saturday in Canada at about that time of night. Last Saturday it involved me.

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12 responses to “Fighting Night in Canada

  1. I’m sorry to hear that you were a surprise participant in this ridiculous ‘culture’ of fighting.

    Every time I share my feelings about not letting any child of mine play hockey, I am shunned. Scorned. Even violently opposed. I’m not interested in exposing a child a sport or culture that not only condones, but encourages fighting.

    Sportsmanship, teamwork and a feeling of achievement are valuable lessons, but they can be learned on the baseball or soccer field- or in debate club, no black eyes required.

  2. Thank you Meg for responding. Unfortunately the culture of fighting in Canada is not limited to the ice. If it was it would be easy to avoid.

    I also think eventually this will be addressed and removed from the NHL. The prohibitions in the junior levels are much more stringent. I think it’s possible to enjoy hockey even as a very physical game and eliminate the fighting. I enjoy the game but feel the fighting is stupid. It’s against the rules but the rules aren’t stringent enough. The solution is easy, simply eject the players for the entire game, suspend them and fine them. Like every other friggin professional sport in the world. Don Cherry is way off on this one.

    I’m also positive it will take a death on national TV witnessed by millions for the rules to be changed. Clearly a death in the minors wasn’t enough.

    The fact that Todd Bertuzzi is not in a jail cell or that Avery got a longer suspension for insulting a player’s girlfriend than Pronger got for knocking a man unconscious is despicable. (One game for Pronger 6 for Avery)

    I’m not sure what it would take to eliminate the Culture of fighting off the ice. I’m hoping to call attention to it with this post. I think it’s time our nation had a serious look at the issue and not just on the ice.

  3. I should have mentioned that I think you have the right to enroll your kids in any sport or activity that you think is beneficial. Free from critique. It’s silly that people are hostile to you for simply choosing a different activity.

  4. Canada’s fight culture disgusts and embarrasses me. I suspect but cannot prove there is a direct causal relationship between hockey fight culture and Canadian fight culture. In my experience, fights break out here in Canada much more often than anywhere else I’ve visited or lived in the world. What disgust me even more is the crowd which invariably forms to watch the fight — just like the fans pounding on the glass.

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  6. First just let me say that I am so sorry this happened to you, Wayne. If it’s any consolation, I’m sure the d-bag who hit you will get his – the universe has a way of sorting these things out and it is clear from your story you handled the situation in the best possible way.

    I am a hockey fan. And up until recently, I was one of the fans who loved hockey fights. And then I saw this on CBC:

    http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2008-2009/the_code/video.html

    I encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to watch this documentary. It opened my eyes to the reality that is the culture of fighting in hockey. I can no longer watch a hockey fight without thinking of the immense implications it has on the individuals as well as the sport as a whole – imagine being a hired goon on a professional team. Imagine wanting to play professional hockey so bad that you are willing to be that guy who intimidates and batters players from the opposing team. Now imagine what the long term effect that has on you, physically obviously, but also mentally and emotionally. Suddenly it all seems very sick and very sad.

    The other thing I want to say is in response to your comments about violence being not only part of hockey culture, but Canadian culture as a whole. I have been attending the Writer’s Festival happening right now, and ideas about Canadian identity of course come up quite regularly. And I feel a theme has already emerged, and it has to do with a growing desire for big ideas within Canadian culture. Over the last 20 or 30 years, Canadians have retreated from the world stage and have disengaged from the issues that face us at home. I think there is a growing hunger to once again define what it means to be Canadian – and then step up and demonstrate those ideas to the world. I would argue that you have presented a perfect example of a place to start: let’s not teach our kids that violence is a viable strategy for getting what you want.

    I wish you a speedy recovery.

  7. HM, I watched the Fifth Estate report to which you linked. It made more angry disgusted and embarrassed. The only consolation I can take is that the best defenders of the practice look like idiots. My worry is that not everyone sees them as idiots.

  8. Thank you HM for your insights and concern. My eye is pretty much OK now. It has gone from purple to yellow but is difficult to notice unless you get close.

    I haven’t had a chance to watch the video yet but when I do, I will be sure to comment. Thank you very much for posting it.

  9. Paper Bag Princess

    Wayne I am really sorry to hear about what happened to you. I’m glad you are on the mend!! Fight culture (on and off the ice) is disgusting. Shocking the way that hockey sportscasters accept and condone that kind of uncivilized and illegal activity. I agree with Meg, and in fact I have trouble understanding why parents would even want to put their children into hockey. Yuck.

    I always wonder what motivates these drunken, fighty bar oafs. What compels them act this way – frustration with life? Attention-seeking??

  10. I agree the promotion of the culture on TV is awful. Maybe we can tease out why people (largely men) engage in this behaviour. I think it is tangled up with notions of masculinity, and honour codes as much as it is with frustrations in life.
    While we can see the celebration of Canada’s fight culture in hockey. I’m not sure I agree with Sterling that it is a direct causal relationship. It is entangled with it certainly, but I tend to see hockey fights as just one expression of a larger problem/culture.
    My eye is fine now too. Yesterday you could barely see any bruiseing and nowit’s gone. Thanks to everyone who expressed their concern whether privately or on here. I appreciate it.

  11. HM,
    Thank you so much for posting that video link. I encourage everyone to watch it. It’s really unfortunate that one death wasn’t enough to remove the fighting from hockey.

    Seeing the fights in this documentary removed from the context of the game is quite a powerful experience. The interviews with the “enforcers” are compelling and tragic. Like Sterling, I am now even more disgusted by the whole thing.

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