December 12, 2008

Violence in hockey, misogyny, and raising a girl

The violence that is essential to professional hockey keeps me from watching many NHL games anymore. The only time I watch is when there’s a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Finals (Senators, Oilers, Flames, Canucks – but sadly, never, ever the Leafs). Then I watch the final game or two. Yet, I have always loved hockey because it can be beautiful, elegant and creative. Watching Johan Franzen or Martin St. Louis on YouTube, I laugh with joy at their skill. It reminds me of the glory days of Lafleur, Salming, and Perrault when I was growing up and did watch lots of hockey on TV.

My repulsion is in no small part due to the fact that I’m as susceptible as the next guy to the rush of watching a heavy hit or a fight in hockey. What does it mean that I seem programmed or acculturated to enjoy the violence, while simultaneously being disgusted by it? A man is taught in this world to be not soft, not gentle, not sensitive. These are supposedly uniquely the qualities of women. So much of my adult life has been a struggle to understand what it means to be a man as opposed to what society dictates a man should be. My quest has become all the more urgent now that I have a young daughter.

This came up strongly for me this week when I read about the Dallas Stars’ Sean Avery dissing his NHL adversaries, as well as two of his former girlfriends. Thankfully, his behavior was condemned at all levels of the NHL: his coach, his teammates, other players, the league. Much of the talk was about how he had engaged in “behavior unbecoming to the league”. Alas, not so much talk about the misogyny of what he said. My experience suggests that this kind of talk is rampant among gatherings of men, especially in locker rooms.

When I was in my late teens and twenties, I thought that, were I to have a child, I would want to have a boy. It wasn’t so much that I liked boys better than girls, or that I wanted my name to live on in perpetuity. Rather, it frightened me to imagine bringing a girl into a world that was dangerous and oppressive to women. Now that I have a daughter I have to face misogyny and oppression of girls and women with more focus and intention than I ever have. I have to look at my own socializing, my own misogyny, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Today I am thinking about how she will fit into the world of sport. I gave her a soccer ball for her first birthday. She likes the ball and one of her first words has been ‘ball’ (minus the ‘l’s, however). I’ve also shown her one of my hockey sticks, which she picked up. But can I imagine her playing hockey?

My friend Patrick told me about his qualms of exposing his children and family to the violence that is woven into hockey. For me, as much as I’ve loved playing hockey and used to love watching it, hockey may not be the game to encourage my daughter to play as long as fighting and misogyny are part of the professional game. Of course, there’s always Hailey Wickenheiser to hold up as a role model!


green tiger said...

You could always register her for Ringette...

The thing is, ballet classes have a whole other kind of violence, too!

By the way: have you seen the CBC documentary called "The Disappearing Male?"



Scott said...

Ringette reminds me of those left-handed scissors they made me use in primary school. The ends were round, as if left handers were so uncoordinated that we'd stab ourselves. Maybe they believed we were antisocial and would use them as weapons. In any case, ringette seems like a sanitized version of hockey, created because some folks believe girls and Special Olympians can't play hockey.

I'll check out "The Disappearing Male". Thanks.


Padraig17 said...

Hey Scott,
Very interesting post and I'd like to add my 2 cents worth on a couple of aspects. One, I don't think misogyny is disproportionately represented in the hockey culture as compared with society at large. I think really it's only a reflection of the fact that some hockey happens to put only men in a room...on the eve of a competitive event. Sport is competition and competition brings out the best and the worst. A corporate board room full of males can have a similar feeling with simply a slight shift in vocabulary.

As for violence in hockey in general, my views are changing subtly with time. I won't say "evolving" because I'm really not sure if that's the case but definitely changing. As you know I came to my appreciation of the sport late in life and was not immersed in it as a kid. And I was always shocked and repulsed by the fighting. A bit hypocritical given that I didn't apply the same judgement to rugby, a sport that I was immersed in as a teen and young adult. But now I find myself beginning to argue on behalf of hockey's overt approach to fighting as opposed to rugby and football's covert dirty tricks. I'm starting to see (some of) the merits of the "pressure release valve" argument. They're all violent sports but it's a continuum of violence that even includes, somewhere, a punishing 120mph tennis serve from Rafael Nadal. Evolutionary speaking, it's still all about establishing fitness for reproduction. But I digress...
The other point I wanted to address was the Sean Avery thing. What he said was absolutely despicable and I was very pleased to see his teammates come out quickly and condemn him in as dismissive a way as possible making it clear that he was no longer welcome on the team. But the league itself totally over stepped its bounds when they handed down a punishment for off-ice behaviour. This sets them up with some kind of moral authority that they clearly shouldn't possess. Avery's time in the NHL is done but more because his fellow players don't want him, and not because Gary Bettman thinks his behaviour is bad for business.
Oh and btw, I used to think about ringette the same way you do until this year when I saw the best player in Jesse's age group (7) this year is a girl who is on the ice 6 times a week - three for hockey and three for ringette. There's a rule in ringette that the puck must be passed into the zone - it can't be carried. She is, by far, the best passer and positional player in the league.
Anyhow, grist for a mill near and dear to me...

The best discussion I've ever read is "Grace Under Fire," by Lawrence Scanlan, a Kingston sportwriter. An excellent, measured, and (seemingly) knowledgeable study of violence in hockey

Andrew Hazelden said...

Hi Scott!

At least there is always Shinny or Pond Hockey where skating ability and teamwork is valued over brawn and violence.


Andrew Hazelden