The worst possible day in the life of every young Canadian male is the day he realizes that he might as well be European for all he knows about New York hardcore. Walking past a mirror wall next to the escalators at the shopping center, he catches a candid glimpse of himself in his Down But Not Out ’89 tour shirt, and it hits him: “Wait a second—I don’t live in a country of endemic violence where the government might conceivably leave me or someone I love to die. I’ve been co-opting all along. As if I were a common Belgian.” (I’m speaking from experience here.)
The worst possible day in the life of every American sports fan is the day he realizes that, because he lives in proximity to a kind of urban squalor that almost literally infects the air he breathes, he might as well be Honduran for he all knows about hockey.
Even a man as worthy of our respect as NPR’s Mike Pesca—the most talented, self-aware, and CFL-conversant broadcaster in the United States—is out of his depth. On a recent episode of “Hang Up and Listen,” the sports podcast he co-hosts, Pesca said that he won’t take his young son to hockey games because he “can’t explain the fighting.” If, as is implied, he can find a way to explain a late hit on a quarterback, a low-post elbow, a bench-clearing bean-ball brawl, or, for that matter, what Muhammad Ali did for a living, then why not a hockey fight? In answering this question one begins to understand how Americans misunderstand the greatest game on skates.
It’s not that staged-for-entertainment’s-sake violence unduly bothers America but that America, particularly its deep-thinking high-end sports commentators, can’t fathom how hockey fighting, which qua sporting violence is unique both in the degree to which it exists outside the normal course of the game and in how lightly it’s penalized, can bother Canada so little. We’re talking about a culture that produced Colin Campbell, a man who while responsible for disciplining NHL players for on-ice infractions wrote a memo that referred to the Boston Bruins’ Marc Savard, whose career was eventually ended by a vicious hit to the head, as a “little fake artist.”
One theory, in a nutshell: Kids living in the Reagan- or Clinton-era suburbs may not have experienced street crime in the Lower East Side, and they may not have been objects of reverse racism in DC. But their parents paid taxes to local, state, and federal governments whose elected legislators came to hold their offices in part because of positions taken in response to that social unrest and those conflicts of interests that bred controversy. Thus, even the American kids living under safe circumstances had a claim on the lyrics to “Survival of the Streets” that kids growing up in, say, the Ottawa Valley boondocks didn’t have. And it’s precisely this distance from the political and economic ramifications of violence that permits Canadians to see hockey fights as somewhat farcical acts of good fellowship where Americans like Pesca see something more grim.
The mutual distance can yield intermittent advantage and the occasional cogent insight. A Euro got the Cro Mags back together, and Pesca provided the sports media’s single best take on the recent NHL All Star Game—though, it has to be said, he overplayed his hand when he objected to naming the all-star squads after captains Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara; anyone who grew up even glancingly aware of the Top Prospects game—organized and presented by the CHL, Canada’s top amateur league—and its yearly pitting together of teams named for its coaches—i.e., Hall of Fame defenceman Bobby Orr and Don Cherry, a broadcaster whose belief in the honor and sanctity of fighting is, incidentally, almost parodic—would shake his head at such an objection. Nevertheless, the distance must be acknowledged. There’s a maybe-uncrossable cultural barrier between Americans and the tradition of hockey fights, and they simply aren’t going to understand.
To put it more succinctly: Don’t tread on us.