Sadly, the off-season of the fighter is here.
To name a few, the Calgary Flames traded for Brandon Bollig and signed Deryk Engelland. The San Jose Sharks re-signed Mike Brown (more on that here) AND signed John Scott (more on that here and here). The Oilers re-signed Luke Gazdic (I wrote about Gazdic previously here). And, the Florida Panthers signed Shawn Thornton.
Thornton is a particularly interesting case insofar as he shows up the disjunction between affection for a fighter among the fanbase and a fighter’s actual ability to play hockey. When the Bruins announced they had no intentions of re-signing the beloved enforcer, all manner of caterwauling, pearl clutching and derangement ensued. This opening graph, from Joe MacDonald of ESPNBoston, is a monument to the wet-dreams of the armchair violence thrill-seeker.
It is genuinely difficult to express how disturbing this statement is. The best attempt to square the circle of fandom’s grand affection for fighters is found in a recent piece by Justin Bourne. Without sugar-coating, or undermining, Thornton’s actual on-ice abilities, without belittling, or overstating, the bonds formed between player and fanbase, Bourne nevertheless lays bare the situation. If you can’t play the game, whether due to ability, age, injury, etc., and yet you mange to win a job for the sake of your “intangibles,” you are, for all intents and purposes, a mascot.
Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton, Friday, February 13: The Quebec Nordiques are here, and so is Krazy George. He wears rolled up jeans, an Oiler sweater with Krazy George written across the back, and a rubber mask that makes him look bald and wild. Underneath he is bald. His name is Henderson; the George is real, if not the Krazy. He lives in Colorado. The Oilers, along with other professional sports teams around the continent, bring him in at $500 a night to whoop up their crowds. He carries a drum and a stick, and sprints around the upper rows of seats, leading cheers. He has some theatrical tricks: He will start a cheer in one corner and then roll it around the arena, with each section rising from its seats as it yells. The players find it more distracting than encouraging.
~ The Game Of Our Lives, Peter Gzowski
A mascot’s performance, by definition, is peripheral to the action of a competitive game. It’s a supplement that adds value (of dubious purpose and quality) to a perfectly sufficient exercise of competition. It takes place at the margins of the game–not on the arena of play or during game’s course. It is superfluous and that’s just fine. The audience experience of competition doesn’t exclude the fun of stadium music, hot dogs and visions of a silly, little man running about.
But, let’s be honest about what it is we are enjoying when we watch a mascot, or an NHL enforcer. We are watching an apparently entertaining sideshow designed, in part, to supplement our enjoinment, encourage our association with a team, and titillate our baser interests (be they the manic cheering that distracts us from the game itself, or the bloodlust that welcomes violent distractions from the game itself).
Like the mascot, the fighter plies his trade at the margins of the competitive game. He does not play much during the actually clocked game play and his primary activity, fighting, takes place exclusively after the whistles have interrupted the game. He doesn’t play when the game is on the line, or the season for that matter. Finally, like mascots, fighters stage their performance, in large part, in relation to the audience’s interest in the game.
All these attributes suggest something entirely superfluous to the competitive nature of the game.
Theatre of the Absurd
During the pre-season of the 2013-14 effort, the absurdity of the fighter’s role in modern hockey reached its saturation point.
This is a spectacle. It’s theatre of the lowest sort. It’s the hilariously engorged phallus of the satyr wandering through a staged bacchanalia as the citizens of tragedy are still shuffling into their seats eagerly awaiting Aeschylus’ latest offering.
It’s a side-show. No doubt some come strictly for the side-show and sneak out the back, their caps pulled down tight over their faces. With any luck, these ribald folk won’t be spotted as missing by their neighbors when the main attraction starts. Many, presumably, enjoy the flitting images of excess. The obscene gestures, wise cracks and dancing to music are, after all, a lot of fun. But, the play’s the thing that gets them in the seats in the first place. The play’s the thing that turns over and over in their collective memory for years to come: the impressionistic images of the satyr play can’t, in the end, compete with the tragic stories of the House of Atreus.
Like the satyr play and the mascot, the NHL enforcer is a side-show. The disconnect between those that acknowledge it for what it is and those that persistently fail to do so was never more on evidence then when John Scott faced off against Phil Kessel. Those still clinging to the idea that the enforcer was actually a good hockey player had to face the gravity of the situation. It wasn’t so much deplorable as it was silly. The entire idea of playing an enforcer during the time on ice clocked for an NHL game is ridiculous.
These folks are not hockey players. They are fighters partaking in a side-show.
Oh, Quit Stalling. LET’S HAVE SOME ACTION!!!
Long before Robert Ryan served as a stooge for institutional values (The Dirty Dozen, Aldrich, 1967),
he played a series of noir parts noted for their gritty realism. Whether he was a vicious anti-semite (Crossfire, Dmytryk, 1949), a rogue, violent cop (On Dangerous Ground, Ray, 1951), or an embittered womanizer and misogynist (Clash By Night, Lang, 1952), Ryan was always captivating on screen. His characters, never entirely unsympathetic, allowed the audience to identify the grimmer parts of their moral selves––the parts that are frustrated and enraged by the world around them.
My favorite Ryan noir is The Set-Up (Wise, 1949). Ryan plays Stocker Thompson, a two-bit boxer, in steep decline and fighting against reality’s lack of charm for the aged. The set-up of the film is simple enough. Thompson is pegged by some local mob-boss to take a dive, he doesn’t and reaps a kind of inverted Pyrrhic victory (he loses so badly at the hands of mob thugs, he ends up winning by leaving the fighting business altogether).
Ryan is magnetic on the screen throughout with one notable exception. During his actual on-screen fight, ripe with kinetic energy and built-up with heavy intrigue, Wise does something exceptionally clever and magnificently cynical.
He cuts away from the fight intermittently to the audience. These cuts not only break the tension of the fight, they offer a dark vision of the audience experience. For Wise, the fight itself is a horrible exercise of human sacrifice and punishment and the audience is a grotesquerie of sad lives and their prurient interests. For Wise, the audience of a fight is an obese man, sandwich clenched in one fist the other play acting along with the show.
The audience is the sweet woman from down the street, who professes to hate the spectacle to her neighbors in the lobby before the fight begins. Once it starts, however, she is bile and spleen personified as she scares her clearly unnerved husband in her voracious lust for blood.
Appetite for Destruction
As long as the powers that be and the fanbases that support them crave their side-show, I see no reason to deny them. I do however have a pair of suggestions.
1) Let’s stop pretending the dance of the enforcer is anything by a side-show. Let’s stop holding up enforcers as heroes of hockey. They may well be heroes to a particular sub-set of fans, but they are not hockey players and are not valorized for anything related to hockey.
2) Let’s properly marginalize the role of the enforcer. Let two goofballs fight it out before or after the game or during one of the intermissions or TV timeouts. There is no competitive reason to interrupt the action of the game with silliness.