The next time someone begins bleating about eliminating violence from hockey, I will think of New York defenceman John Moore. Specifically, Moore chasing Dale Weise around for most of Game 5, trying to kill him.
Is it something Weise said? It can’t just be that he’s been unexpectedly good, can it? More likely, it’s the fact that hate requires a physical object on which to project itself.
This is the real definition of playoff hockey – the threshold at which players are allowed to give free rein to their darker selves.
That is not a function of rules or codes.
That’s the collision of human nature and overfamiliarity.
Weise has become the NHL’s all-purpose pinata during these playoffs. After the Montreal-Boston series, Milan Lucic told him something along the lines of “I’m going to [expletive] kill you next year” during the handshakes.
Oddly, I’ve had the same thing happen to me in the greeting line at a wedding reception.
On Tuesday night, Moore tried several times to open up Weise’s head to get a good look at its inner workings.
In the first period, he rode Weise into the turnbuckle at the end of the benches. Three years ago – before they rounded those Plexiglas sections – Canadiens fans would have been piling up memorial bouquets at that spot in the Bell Centre on Wednesday morning. There was no penalty call.
In the third, Moore came galloping across a vast plain of horizontal ice trying to finish the job. His direct cranial strike put Weise down like a sack of flour. Moore was ejected, looking blasé, and then suspended for two.
Though this series has been chippy since the second period of the first game, when Carey Price was wiped out in the crease, it had stayed civil. The heads of households – Montreal’s Michel Therrien and New York’s Alain Vigneault – are off-season pals.
Eventually, the two of them began digging into the fine print of The Code, which apparently has a subsection about how to invite people to practice.
While the dads were cancelling the summer fishing trip, their 40-odd kids began picking up on the not-so-subtle signals. Brandon Prust and Derek Stepan started slapping each other in the backseat. Someone had his jaw broken. Prust declared that “unfortunate” – which translates as ‘awesome and totally on purpose.’
Now, while Prust is suspended, Weise gets to take his teammate’s paddywhacks.
There’s something in this about the number five. Five meetings is the critical threshold in any relationship.
First meeting – Me trying to figure out if I like you.
Second meeting – Me trying to convince myself that first impressions are sometimes wrong.
Third meeting – Nope. First impressions are always right.
Fourth meeting – Me deciding I can never, ever be in a room with you ever again.
Fifth meeting – Commence la guerre.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to hockey, but it’s especially intense there. In basketball and baseball, Game 5 is the point where guys start thinking, “We probably have to win this one.” In hockey, they start thinking, “I’d really like to hospitalize someone.” The crucial difference? In hockey, you can. In fact, it’s encouraged.
That will never change. Not if you want to maintain the sport in a recognizable form. The seven-game series creates too many good reasons to want to hurt someone, as well as a philosophical structure that encourages you to do so – “for the team.”
This reaches back to the Original Six travel days of the home-and-away. Both teams would take the same train. One squad had to walk through the other in order to get to the dining car.
Every old timer has a story about those moments, and mutual dislike so thick it was near to a physical force. Red Kelly once described it to me as “pure hatred.”
And that was halfway through a two-game series.
A number of things have changed since, calming the regular-season situation. Player movement via trades and free agency allowed everyone to get to know one another. The influx of money turned NHLers into an socioeconomic elite. The union made them all brothers, on one level at least.
Violence in the regular season now has a macabre formality – I hit you because it’s what I have to do to keep my job. I fight you for the same reason.
That could be removed, I suppose. Not easily. But you can see a rules-based path to doing that.
But in the playoffs? When guys are giving birth to grudges in Game 1 they will nurse along for two weeks? No chance.
In the playoffs, hockey violence is a function of genuine dislike. As viewers, that is a rare commodity these days – uncontrived negative emotions.
Whether the pacifists hovering around the game want to admit or not, that is a large part of the attraction. Remove it, and they’re not really playing hockey any more. Not the kind you’d want to watch, anyway.