Call in the goon squad!

Calgary Flames v Vancouver Canucks (Click to enlarge.)

The image I chose to analyze is complex in its composition but provides valuable insight into the world of ice hockey and the stereotypes it perpetuates as well as rejects. The large white portion on the bottom half of the image provides a color contrast to what appears to be people engaging in physical contact, drawing the viewer’s eye to the scene unfolding there. Since it is difficult to see the facial expressions on these individuals, they could be engaged with each other in either violent or compassionate ways, either in an altercation or helping each other get up from the ice. There are three visually different groups of individuals that are marked by their clothing and accessories, possibly implying that they have the same goals but are on different teams.

The white wall separating the subjects of the background of the image with those in the foreground has wording in English displayed on it, which would lead the viewer to believe this scene might possibly be taking place in a western cultural arena. Given the hairstyles of the individuals in the main portion of the picture, and what is socially acceptable in western culture, this could be indicative that they are all male. On the other side of the barrier, in the background of the image, are other people situated in a tiered manner. If we continue to assume that this is in fact a scenario from western culture, this might connote that these violent occurrences are a form of entertainment, similar to the layout in a theater or stadium. The different expressions on each spectator’s face, ranging from surprised to shocked to confused, is suggestive of the fact that the performance below is not staged. The idea of unpredictability is further implicated in the production of the image itself, which is not aligned perfectly with any geometric shapes present in the foreground or background.

Moving away from a more denotative analysis of this image, and incorporating further knowledge of western culture and sport, this image shows a line brawl in an ice hockey game. The National Hockey League (NHL), a league of 30 different teams that was founded in Quebec, has 7 Canadian teams and 23 American teams. The popularity of the sport in the United States, however, comes nowhere close to that of baseball. (“As recently as 1967, only four NHL teams were based in the United States, compared with 20 Major League Baseball teams.”) Furthermore, baseball has been able to cross racial divides over time and diversity is unmistakable in a team’s roster. On the other hand, hockey is a sport dominated by Caucasians and there are very few men of color playing in the NHL. The image above perpetuates the stereotype that hockey is a white man’s sport. All players involved in the altercation shown are white. Even the referees are white.

The central feature of this image is the line brawl between members of the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. While line brawls are common enough to have been given a name by which people can refer to them, they do not happen so often that they have become normalized within the sport. This is problematic because this instance not only reaffirms as well as rejects the popular belief that hockey is characterized by meaningless fighting. It reinforces this notion because what people outside of this community see is everyone on the ice, except for the two goalies and the referees, deliver injuring blows to one another. With more than 20 penalties, 142 penalty minutes, and 8 ejections in the first two seconds of the game, a line brawl like this is bound to draw attention from figures across the sports world. After Richard Sherman’s attention-drawing post-game interview with Erin Andrews, he spoke at a press conference about being called a thug and what that meant to him, referencing this incident in particular.

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When such attention is given to an incident like this one, questions within the community begin to arise about its origins and what it means for the two teams involved and the sport as a whole. As a visiting team in Vancouver, the Flames’ coach Bob Hartley set their starting lineup first. Since it happened to be Calgary’s fourth line, John Tortorella (the coach for the Canucks) responded accordingly. The fourth line is characterized by enforcers and pests (also known as goons), which are players that are meant to respond to and instigate verbal and physical antagonism with the opposing team. While the argument over whose fault this brawl was and whether it should have even happened, the fact remains that to the outside world, it perpetuated the stereotype that the main appeal of hockey games are when players drop the gloves and fight and very little playing takes place. In fact, comedian Rodney Dangerfield even said that, he “went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out”.

The problem with this is that it ignores the question of why the fighting takes place at all, and why the NHL tolerates it to a certain extent. Similar to how many scholars and athletes associate football with warfare, hockey also possesses some of those same characteristics. Benavides argues in his article, “Football and the Nation: Producing American Culture”, that it is reflective of United States in multiple ways. Some of the more prominent topics he points out are “male bravado, war metaphors, competitive struggle for physical supremacy, extreme physical and emotional vulnerability, the recognition of the rule of law, and an overriding celebration of the self-made individual”. Most, if not all, of those themes are also present in hockey. Being an unofficial enforcer or pest is, by nature, an extremely physical role that new players must often take on in order to assert that they are truly deserving of their spot in the NHL. The position also implies that this extremely physical game is also, in large part, one that involves the mind and is able to evoke a range of emotions rather than simply the employment of strong, mechanical bodies. The purpose of playing an enforcer is not limited to physically beating down the other team, but also to give players with more scoring potential on their own team a break as well as boost the team’s morale, similar to Benavides’ argument of “emotional vulnerability”.

Sources:

Benavides, O. Hugo. “Football and the Nation: Producing American Culture” Oppositional Conversations 1 (2012) http://cargocollective.com/OppositionalConversations/Football-and-the-Nation-Producing-American-Culture.

Greenberg, Chris. “Flames, Canucks Line Brawl Breaks Out 2 Seconds Into Game And John Tortorella Was Not Pleased (VIDEOS).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 19 Jan. 2014. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/19/flames-canucks-fight-line-brawl_n_4625893.html>.

Klein, Jeff Z., and Stu Hackel. “Positive Buzz of Outdoor Games in U.S. Overshadowed Flames-Canucks Brawl.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail Inc., 25 Jan. 2014. Web. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/positive-buzz-of-outdoor-games-in-us-overshadowed-flames-canucks-brawl/article16504567/>.

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One Response to Call in the goon squad!

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    You address an array of issues in this post that relate to issues of violence, masculinity and sport. I’d enjoy hearing a bit more about how you see this emerging more specifically in the formal elements of the image you analyze in the beginning. Your great attention to details has some rich details that could help you to partially answer some of the questions you raise. I’d also be interested in learning more about how you see Richard Sherman coming into this. The connection isn’t totally clear to me right now.

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