Indie Sport

Pop quiz: name the five sports most commonly associated with the word "goon." Okay, there's hockey and . . . and . . . there's hockey . . . and . . . hmm. Let me get back to you on that.

Don't worry; you're not stumped. You're done. It's a variation of a trick question from the sports edition of You Don't Know Jack.

Hockey's latest black eye came in a junior game the other night, when former NHL standout-turned-coach Patrick Roy directed his son, a mediocre goalie on the short end of a 7-1 shellacking, to beat the bejesus out of the opposing team's goalie, which the young lad obediently did, despite the fact that his counterpart never fought back.

Now, before all you hockey aficionados throw down the gloves and call me out, allow me to go on record as saying ice hockey is one of the best sports I've ever seen live. The non-stop speed, power, finesse, and hard hitting action of the game combine to create an exhilarating flow that satisfies both the primitive, reptilian portion of the brain as well as the cortex. It's a full contact ballet between armored companies swirling in ever-changing patterns, as they seek to control a puck as quick and erratic as a pinball careening from bumper to bumper.

Why would anyone spoil a sport so fine with something so WWE as goons and the tawdry theatrics of thuggery they bring?

We've heard all the rationalizations before.

There's this one: The sticks are either literal or metaphorical weapons (choose your rationalization) that naturally and irresistibly bring out the warrior in the athlete, making fighting an inevitable psycho-biological imperative.

And there's this: It's an inherent component of the game's culture of fear and intimidation, as immutable as the spots on a Dalmatian.

And, finally, there's this: It's a necessary outlet to relieve pent-up hostilities unique to the sport.

All of this, of course, is nonsense. Hockey is not the only sport played with sticks. Lacrosse players, who wear a lot less padding, tear up and down the pitch whacking each other with sticks, yet manage to avoid fisticuffs. And it's not because they're effete school boys.

Establishing fear and intimidation in an opponent is endemic in many other sports, but it is established by imposing superior, demoralizing skill within the rules of the game. Often this is highly physical. The Oklahoma Sooners football team, during the heyday of their smash mouth wishbone offense, routinely intimidated opponents with one meat grinding drive after another that screamed, "You can't stop us."

When hockey, or any other sport, invokes the word "culture" to justify something unsavory, it tries to hide, ironically, behind the notion that anything identified as "cultural" is sacrosanct, time honored, and traditional-- a precious sociological heirloom handed down in an unbroken chain to preserve priceless, irreproachable heritage. It's semantic voodoo, akin to showcasing lynching as an esteemed cultural landmark of the South.

We don't see lynching in the South anymore, just as we rarely see goons and fighting in European and college hockey, because cultures change for the better when they are motivated to do so.

Goons and fighting exist because they are tolerated by hockey authorities who either consider their entertainment value to be essential to the marketing appeal of the sport or who view their value as being catalytic to the development of chest thumping machismo in boys and men. Both of these perspectives are specious.

The most entertaining hockey I've ever seen was the 1980 Miracle on Ice and six years of Western Collegiate Hockey Association play as a season ticket holder at Michigan State. The drama, competition, skill, and passion in these contests was simply superb and thuggery played no role, either because it didn't occur or wasn't tolerated.

The WCHA employed a system of progressive penalties for goons. A fight resulted in a match penalty plus a one game suspension. If the player fought again any time in the season he got a two game suspension. Then a three, and so forth. Goons were over matched by savvy players who prided themselves on suckering an opponent into a fight with a little trash talking that would cost their adversaries the services of players in key games. Athletes who lacked discipline did not fare well in this environment.

Fighting in hockey is most frequently triggered by two types of goons: those who cheap-shot and those who possess the frustration tolerance of a child. Often they are one and the same. The former reveals his inadequacy by resorting to illegitimate methods when he lacks the resources or initiative to gain a playing advantage legitimately. The latter pretends to hold to the creed, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," when in actuality his actions betray his proclivity to tantrum when things don't go his way.

Spectators who need their blood lust satisfied have ample opportunity elsewhere, such as boxing, cage fighting, and the Democratic presidential primary. That's where I go when my brain stem cries out for a little love.

The game of hockey, if not some of its stewards and inhabitants, belongs in the pantheon of esteemed sports. But it will remain on the doorstep of semi-respectability, knocking to be let in until it realizes that the cumulative manhood of a thousand goons is but a fraction of that possessed and displayed by Jackie Robinson. Only then will it rid itself of the ugliness that defaces an otherwise beautiful game.

Indie Sport


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