It’s that time of year in New England where some people like myself and my family get excited about the upcoming hockey season. We eagerly look forward to players speeding down the ice and shooting a perfect wrist shot between the pipes. The sounds of ice skates gliding along the smooth surface of the ice. The cheer of the crowd and players knocking each other against the boards. The cheap hits and fights. Oh, those fights.
Growing up a Bruins fan in the seventies, I looked forward to watching Bobby Orr and the big bad Bruins. It was an era where every team had goons to skate out onto the ice and protect their best players. Bobby Orr was that rare player who, beside scoring goals and playing stellar defense, fought his own battles. It made me wonder why fighting was allowed inside the rink and not outside?
Crime and hockey has always gone hand in hand to me. I’m not sure why, but it has. Maybe it emanated from watching Eddie Coyle sitting in the old Boston Garden and getting drunk while watching Bobby Orr score a goal. Maybe it was those brutal fights. Or maybe it was watching the movie Slap Shot. I remember Mike Milbury climbing into the stands to attack a drunk fan with the fans own shoe. Maybe it was the Italian mobster in Danbury, Connecticut who bought his seventeen year-old son a minor league hockey team.
I worked security at the Boston Garden in the eighties and witnessed all the street punks and Irish gangsters who made their way inside, drunk and intent on getting drunker once they got inside. One couldn’t make their way inside the ‘Gahden’ without witnessing a whole bevy of small time crimes, from ticket scalping to drug dealing to drunken brawls outside the arena. Crime and hockey went hand-in-hand with old time hockey. That’s just the way it was.
People often wondered where the line existed between crime laws and hockey. Why didn’t a cheap hit result in criminal charges? Was one player beating another player not assault? Or beating up a fan? Did the laws of crime cease to exist where the boards met the ice?
It’s because hockey back then had its own rules and it’s own enforcers. Most sports do. In football, Darryl Stingley was paralyzed by a cheap hit by Jack Tatum and Tatum was never charged with a crime. Ray Mancini killed Boo Koo Kim in the ring. Juan Marichal hit John Roseboro over the head with a bat and suffered no legal consequences. Society has allowed sports to govern themselves as far as these violent crimes go. Interesting. Why?
Money. Sports brings in a lot of money and influence. It’s accepted behavior and confined to its own nation-state arena. No one even questions these rules. And yet if two hockey players fought at a local bar they would most likely be hauled in by the police. And it used to be that ice hockey had its own version of police officers called enforcers. Back then enforcers we’re goons who could barely skate at the college level but not for their pugilistic skills. Enforcers are a thing of the past now, but they did serve a purpose. They were mercenaries who made sure that law and order prevailed throughout the game. And if any of hockey’s unwritten laws got broken, they would jump out onto the ice and dish out the appropriate punishment.
As well, there are rules about fighting. A player must ask another player to throw down the gloves with him. If the player refuses, they do not fight. If an inferior player harms a star player, then anything goes and the punishment will be swift and sure. Many other unwritten rules like that exist, many of them only the players themselves know.
In either case, I look forward to the upcoming hockey season. I spent many a frigid night watching my son play the sport while he was growing up. Now I get to watch the Bruins every night and route for the black and gold. Hopefully, they’ll capture the Cup this year.