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Playing dirty in the NHL doesn’t trump playing with skill

Minnesota Wild left wing Matt Cooke reaches to control the puck against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series on Saturday, April 19, 2014, in Denver.

Jack Dempsey/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Inside the boards, a hockey player's true character is laid bare; the NHL is a reputation league and the tags are sticky.

Thus does the concept of the "mean streak" enter into the equation – it's a label that has particular currency in hockey.

How else to explain that serial harmer of opponents Matt Cooke – whose latest transgression is a nasty knee-on-knee hit on Colorado's Tyson Barrie that resulted in a seven-game ban – continues to find suitors whenever he hits free agency.

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This is his seventh suspension; after a three-year reformation during which he cut his penalty-minute totals in half, these playoffs have revived his inner scourge.

He's not alone. Dallas's Antoine Roussel has become one of the most-loathed players in the league this season; his body of work includes punching Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf on his injured chin. The New York Rangers have the oft-suspended Daniel Carcillo, the San Jose Sharks employ noted miscreant Raffi Torres, St. Louis has Maxim Lapierre – who dished out a nasty hit from behind this week.

The fact is, having a nasty reputation is no barrier to success – Cooke, who has played 1,117 NHL games, scoring 422 points and earning north of $15.4-million (U.S.), has his name etched on the Stanley Cup. The natural tension at the heart of the sport, at the pro level at least, pits physical aggression – and fear – against skill (the former being the most reliable way to thwart the latter, which is in much shorter supply).

You don't have to play with a flinty edge to be in the NHL, but every team is well-stocked with players who do, and this is the time of year when they step to the fore. Players such as the Boston Bruins' force-of-nature winger Milan Lucic, the modern archetype of hockey mean.

"They know you're coming, and you know you're coming, it's playing with that willingness to engage and get in there," Lucic said in a recent interview.

Intimidation is a real thing in pro hockey.

("I discovered that when I was 12, 13, in minor hockey, when you start hitting … it's always come naturally," Lucic said, smiling) and has been since before the game was moved indoors in the late 1800s.

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The most sought-after combination in hockey is the player who contains the rare alloy of fearlessness, pugnacity and skill – who inspires fear and possesses the hockey talent to leverage it. Monumental figures Gordie Howe and Maurice (Rocket) Richard are the ur-examples; so are players such as Bobby Orr, and the man who seemed destined to become the most dominant player in the history of the game – big, malicious, scary-good Eric Lindros. That Lindros's career was derailed by one of the nastier players in hockey's brawny annals – the New Jersey Devils' Scott Stevens – is perhaps not irony so much as it is symmetry.

It turns out there's a good deal of advanced scholarship on antagonistic behaviour – repackaged in the minds of some hockey people as "character."

A Canadian psychology professor, Del Paulhus of the University of British Columbia, has identified four broad categories of what he calls dark personalities; the one that most closely relates to hockey is "everyday sadists."

"Hockey, I believe, has the highest ratio of intimidation to skill," he said in a recent interview. "It's the only sport with enforcers, the only one where you're required to finish your check on a player who has made a pass. Hockey is sending a message: Be as violent as possible."

The perp becomes the victim

There is a problem, of course, with the image blasted across North America this week of a heavily padded upper arm colliding at brain-rattling speed with a helmeted, defenceless head. It's not the obvious one. Beyond the immediate medical consequences for the guy whose grey matter is being abused (the St. Louis Blues' David Backes) and the punishment meted on the owner of the shoulder and biceps (the Chicago Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook), there lies swampy moral ground.

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In the NHL, the perp has typically been the victim at some point – and vice versa.

Seabrook knows what it's like to be carried off the ice with a concussion – he was drilled behind the net by then-Vancouver Canucks miscreant Raffi Torres in 2011, and a year earlier was popped on the end boards by then-Anaheim Duck James Wisniewski, who had invited Seabrook to his wedding.

Backes, for his part, has been known to occasionally stick out a knee (Matt Stajan), crank someone's head into the boards after a whistle (Jamie McGinn), cross-check an unsuspecting opponent (Tomas Holmstrom), crush an Olympic teammate with a brutal open-ice hit (Dustin Brown), or punch a skill guy in the face during a scrum (Daniel Sedin).

The point is few, if any, cowboys in this picture are wearing white hats.

Add the unseemly-in-the-real-world spectacle of a Hawks defenceman goading an injured fellow professional with taunts of "Wakey, wakey, Backes" (this kind of stuff is contemptible, but commonplace), and the fan is confronted with a hard truth.

If the occasion calls for plumbing the darker elements of human behaviour, you go there.

Earlier this season, Backes spoke expansively to The Globe and Mail about the value of meanness in hockey.

"Growing up you find it's an ever-evolving process. Can I win the game by skill, toe-drags, out-skating the guy across from me? Or is there a time when I have to be willing to be meaner than him, or intimidate him or try to discourage them from wanting to win the game?" said the Minnesota native. "For me it was early, coming from a small town, I was on the ice for most of the game and I had to find ways to be effective. The mean streak, if you will, was part of it."

It's pretty much a settled question among scientists that personality carries a genetic component, and it follows that people with a predisposition to violence will gravitate to violent sports, films or blood-soaked video games. This is not a marginal phenomenon.

"Even this kind and gentle nation we have seems to love cage-fighting more than just about anywhere else," said Paulhus, the UBC professor. "In fact, I don't mind it myself."

And it's a mistake to conflate sadism with mental illness, according to the work done by Paulhus and his collaborators. "It seems to be independent of mental health … a lot of people are surprised to hear there's sadism in people who aren't in jail," he said, later adding, "there is darkness in people who are flourishing in regular society."

Hockey, in that sense, is something close to an ideal vehicle for everyday sadists; as Paulhus said: "There are only a few walks of life where you can be rewarded for being more sadistic than the next guy."

It seems an obvious point, but not everyone who has a mean streak is a psychopath. Yet according to widely cited research by American psychology professor Christopher Patrick, psychopathic behaviour is a function of three main personality traits: disinhibition (or impulse control), boldness and – you saw this coming – meanness.

In the NHL context, the latter is not so much considered to be deviance as a historical and tactical necessity. In that sense, it can be argued meanness in hockey is a distant cousin of another psychological concept that has predictive value when it comes to success – grit, or perseverance.

Some of the reasons whey meanness matters may be surprising.

It's generally assumed that demonstrating a willingness to hurt a fellow professional can cause a moment of hesitation, or as Backes put it: "The idea is to make sure other guys are a little less comfortable with the puck, and looking around, scared of that big hit. It's a good weapon to have."

It's not the whole answer. "For me it's not physical, it's mental. I'm going to do whatever it takes to outlast whoever I'm playing against," Backes said. "If you can get them into a battle and engage them, those things tend to weed out the lesser in a hurry."

Other players suggest that few genuinely fearful players reach the NHL, let alone survive it.

Instead, they say, the mean streak – as it applies to certain roles on a hockey team, such as defensive defencemen or so-called role players – is also an adaptive trait that comes into play within a players' locker room.

It's a fine line, where mean meets tough. "Your coaches and teammates see everything. They'll see you turn away, they'll see you duck out of a hit. If you play with an edge and you play hard, it's an example where everybody can look and see they don't have to worry about you. You're going to be there, and there's no questions," said Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference, an undersized defenceman who said that when he entered the league with the Calgary Flames "it was a tough league, you almost had to bark a little louder to show you could handle it."

Ference, who won a Stanley Cup with the big, bad Bruins in 2011, said there are few secrets as to a player's personality in the NHL – "we play too many games against each other" – and that makes the internal dynamic crucial.

"It's tougher if it's up in the air and you don't know if a guy's going to battle on the wall," he said. "Is he going to show up tonight? I don't know. That's probably the biggest thing, it's not to send a message to the other team, it's to send a message to your own team."

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