Tyson Nash dot com



Hockey sells violence, and a whole lot more


Dave Luecking
© St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 5, 2000


One need look no further than the nearest interstate billboard to see how hockey markets its violent image.

There's Blues winger Tyson Nash mischievously peering out onto I-44 and saying "He started it."


Defenseman Marc Bergevin advises drivers on I-170 that "it hurts less if you peel yourself off the glass slowly."


Captain Chris Pronger instructs commuters on Highway 40 near Kiel Center to "hand over the puck and no one gets hurt."


Violence sells, and hockey makes no bones about selling it. Violence and hockey. Hockey and violence. They're inextricably linked, with the physicality of hockey adding excitement and emotion to the artistic and athletic abilities of its players.


At its best, hockey combines the artistry of figure skating with the aggression of football, appealing to our human nature as predators, savages and survivors.


No other spectator sport appeals on so many levels, intellectual and physical, which makes hockey the best spectator sport among the other big four sports - baseball, football, basketball.


However, this unique marriage of physicality and finesse sometimes goes awry when the violence overshadows the hockey. It happened recently when Boston Bruins defenseman Marty McSorley clubbed Vancouver winger Donald Brashear on the right side of the head with his hockey stick. Unconscious before he hit the ice, the back of Brashear's head bounced off the ice, and he suffered a Grade Three concussion that will sideline him for the rest of the year.


McSorley won't play again this season, either. The National Hockey League suspended him for the rest of the season - 23 games - and the playoffs for his wanton act of violence. If he wants to play next year, he can do so only after meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who could either extend or commute the sentence.


It's the longest suspension handed out in the NHL's 83-year history, eclipsing by two games the suspension Washington's Dale Hunter received for slamming Pierre Turgeon, then of the New York Islanders, into the boards after Turgeon had scored a winning goal in the 1993 playoffs. Turgeon suffered a separated right shoulder and missed most of the next round. Hunter was banned for 21 games, one-fourth of the season.


The McSorley incident brought back painful memories for Turgeon, the Blues' exquisite playmaking center and one of hockey's nicest guys on and off the ice. He has been in the penalty box only three times this season.


"I'm not saying what (Hunter) did was right or wrong, but it was with his body," Turgeon said last week. "I think this incident was worse. McSorley used his stick. It's the worse thing I've seen in hockey. It was terrible.


"This is not hockey."


McSorley's act went way beyond the realm of what's acceptable in this physical and fast-paced sport. He broke the unwritten code of conduct that says players are supposed to respect one another. McSorley's hockey stick, which is designed for handling the puck and shooting it, became a dangerous, almost deadly, weapon.


The unfortunate aspect of this unseemly affair is that those unfamiliar with hockey's subtleties use it as evidence that violence is the dominant aspect of the sport. They decry the sport's violence and abhor the barbaric ritual of fighting, condemning the NHL for being the only sport other than boxing to sanction it.


However, this simplistic lack of understanding fails to acknowledge the function of fisticuffs, plus the NHL's efforts to curtail it in the last 10 years. The bench-clearing brawls that plagued the league in the 1960s and 1970s have been legislated out of the game. There hasn't been a bench-clearing brawl in years. Baseball has more bench-clearing brawls every year than hockey. Basketball players clear the bench more often than hockey players to flail at one another.


Fighting in hockey is down dramatically in the last five years, with the drop from last year to this year at 50 percent. An additional two-minute penalty for starting fights, as well as the evolution of the game to quicker, speedier skaters, has rendered the pure "tough guy" obsolete.


The problem in hockey is not fighting, but the lack of it. Fighting is both a deterrent to violence and a release of aggression. A player might think twice if he would have to defend himself with his fists for whacking an opponent across the hands or legs with his stick. And two agitated players could square off and fight rather than swing their sticks at one another.


The irony of the McSorley incident was that he intended to hit Brashear, an enforcer like McSorley, on the shoulder to get his attention as a prelude to a fight.


"I don't see any problem with fighting myself," said Turgeon, a pacifist by nature. "There's nothing wrong with it. Why? Because if you're mad and want to settle something, you can fight and get it over with. It's done.


"Now, fighting is down, and there's more slashing and people using their sticks in frustration. The frustration is always going to be there because you're competing hard on the guys. If guys want to fight, I don't see a problem with that.


"We don't want to see fighting all the time. We want to see good plays and action on the ice, but fighting is part of it. I'm saying this, and I'm not a fighter."


Turgeon is an artist, a scorer and a playmaker whom the Blues also market on their award-winning billboards. He asks drivers on I-170, "Ok, who hasn't scored yet?" They also promote Al MacInnis' 100 mph slapshot on the Popular Street Bridge, where MacInnis tells goalies, "You can't stop what you can't see." Pavol Demitra sounds like a waiter when he tells drivers, "tonight's special is smoked goalie."


The artistry of Turgeon, Demitra and MacInnis are as big a part of hockey as the physicality of Nash, Bergevin and Pronger, which is why hockey appeals on so many levels.


One need look no further than the nearest interstate billboard to see that hockey sells more than violence.