The Law of the Jungle on Ice

One man knocks down another. It happens every day, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not; sometimes with malice, sometimes not. What do we, the bystanders, do about it? That is the question for today.

The query is prompted by the behavior of Mr. Raffi Torres, a hockey player for the Phoenix Coyotes, who made his body into a weapon against Mr. Marian Hossa, a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. It happened in the third game of the quarter-finals for the National Hockey League’s 2012 Stanley Cup: the championship trophy awarded to the best team in professional ice hockey. The issue here, however, is not about sports, but rather, what we owe to each other if we are to be a civilized people.

First, let’s get on to the particulars so that we can get past them. Torres was rushing across the ice on his skates. A moment before the collision, Hossa had passed the puck. He did not see Torres coming for him. Torres left his feet, vaulting his 223 pounds to the flashpoint of connection between his left shoulder and Hossa’s head. Hossa crumbled to the ice and was carried-off minutes later on a stretcher. None of the four officials (umpires) saw Torres’s act of needless aggression. Instead, they penalized a Blackhawk teammate who retaliated against Torres after Hossa had been attacked. When the Head Coach of the Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville, stated that “the refereeing tonight was a disgrace,” he was fined $10,000 by the NHL. Too much truth, as they say.

Torres is a repeat offender. In last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs he was suspended for four games for a hit to the head of Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers, and later did the same to Brent Seabrook of the Blackhawks.

The rules are clear: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and (is) the principal point of contact is not permitted.” They also state that a “minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.”

Not surprisingly, much has been made of Torres’s behavior in the Chicago press. The usual thing is being said: that the referees and the league higher-ups have not penalized such actions sufficiently to discourage them. If that is true, why not?

Perhaps because hockey is one of those sports (unlike baseball) that taps the alpha male desire for violence — the violence of the Roman Colosseum without the lions or the dead bodies. To take that away from the game, some think, would make it less exciting. Of course, if fewer fans were drawn to it, there would be less money to be made. But, others argue, no one forces these young men to come into harm’s way and they are well-compensated for doing so.

The National Hockey League is careful to paper-over the vicious element of the game. You won’t find a video replay of Hossa getting clobbered on an NHL team website. His brain-rattling experience is called “an upper-body injury.” Decapitation falls into the same category for the truth-averse National Hockey League administrators.

All of this is to be expected. As of Saturday, April 21, the NHL has suspended Mr. Torres for 25 games. Perhaps that will persuade him to behave differently, perhaps not. But, I have seen no one raise the issue of the responsibility of Torres’s teammates and coaches. Like “the three wise monkeys” of Japanese lore, they see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil of their own teammate. Even more importantly, they reported no evil to the officials on the ice when the mugging happened, which would have effectively been to turn their companion in to the hockey police.

There is historical usefulness in this type of ethical blindness. If one is to create communities of people for mutual defense and survival, it undoubtedly has served the tribe well to be able to count on your neighbor without qualification. If you had to fear betrayal by a member of your family or your co-religionists, your friends or companions, how would you be able to work together for the communal good, fight the enemy, prepare for the flood?

Are there any exceptions to the rule of lock-step loyalty? Should there be? Should we ever turn in our teammates, our friends, or the members of our own political party? How about our countrymen, our boss, our children? Should we always cover for them? I understand the conflict in loyalties. I know that there would be anguish, not to mention retribution in blowing the whistle. But must we always condone and support “our own” just because they are “our own?”

What Raffi Torres did is wrong because he violated the rules. It is wrong because he intended to do harm. It is wrong because he didn’t turn himself in. It is wrong that his teammates and coaches didn’t turn him in. And it is wrong that no one expected him or them to do that.

The first image is a photo of the Fernie Swastikas (Female) Hockey Team, 1922, before that symbol became widely associated with the Nazi Party. The next picture is Jacques Plante’s Goalie Mask in the NHL Hall of Fame, courtesy of Michael Pick. Finally, The Three Wise Monkeys by Huckfinne. All of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.