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Hockey promotes violence

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The Night the City Became a Stadium, authored by Douglas J. Keefe and John Furlong, tells us up front: "The question... is not the cause of the riot -- troublemakers deliberately caused it -- but the conditions that gave them the opportunity. The key ingredients were congestion and free-flowing alcohol."

Troublemakers? The streets of Vancouver are not an elementary school playground. But a lightweight examination is exactly what they were paid to give; writing about the connection between the public performance of violence -- and how young males learn how to "act out" masculinity through that performance -- is verboten in a country that worships what has become a violent game. Heaven forbid we ask the real question, which is why do we imagine hockey as being much more than it is? The game will always be important to the athletes -- they love what it can be, but few like what it has become.

Hockey is a product packaged by the NHL, the beer companies, other sponsors and, foolishly in the case of Vancouver, by the city itself. Young males learn to consume that product most appropriately when it is infused with alcohol and violence. There must be violence on the ice, but not surprisingly, as Dr. Graham Pollett, chief medical officer for London-Middlesex, has been arguing for years, young males adopt that violence as a model of masculinity. Please read his 2007 paper Violence in Amateur Hockey.

Furlong, who was CEO of VANOC -- the organizing committee for the Vancouver Olympics -- is a hockey fanatic. The introduction to his book Patriot Hearts is titled Golden Goal, which describes how amazing it was for him to be at the men's gold-medal game. Furlong refers to "our boy Sidney" -- yes, Sidney Crosby, who scored the exciting overtime goal for Canada. In less than a year Crosby, suffered concussions in NHL violence that may have ended his career and has certainly changed his life.

The startling coincidence of the report being released the same day we learned Wade Belak, a recently retired NHL enforcer, had hanged himself drives home an even more tragic lesson on hockey violence. This was the third death of a young man who was also an NHL enforcer in the past few months -- fourth when Bob Probert's death in July is included.

There is a silent world of pain hockey players must swallow in order to perform the violence that is sold to fans -- both young and old. I wrote about Belak's WHL junior team the Saskatoon Blades in my book Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport. The incident occurred in 1995 and was well-publicized in the Saskatoon media. No charges were ever laid, but Belak has carried those memories all these years. Too bad the people who say they care about the game have amnesia. The assistant coaches for the Blades were city police officers. It was a very cosy relationship.

When Belak was a teenager, he learned the importance of performing violence. The locker-room kept being stacked with beer the more games they won, and eventually Belak took all the lessons he learned and became an NHL product -- one of many violent players loved by fans -- including many who rioted in Vancouver. Powerful men will continue to "reap another harvest" of themselves, as one player described it to me, as long as they control the game and control the story.

That's why the police, the hockey establishment, VANOC and this report make no connection between the glorification of hockey and unsanctioned violence.

Vancouver police and VANOC knew deeply disturbing behaviour was occurring during the Olympics, despite the report's multiple glowing references to the contrary. Gangs of young males took over public space in Vancouver's District 1 -- where many sports bars are located. According to the police, District 1 saw an increase of 233.3 per cent in reported sexual offences during the Olympics. Women Against Violence Against Women saw a spike in the number of women they accompanied to hospital for the rape kit in the 24 hours after the gold-medal men's game -- all coming from hockey celebrations. Vancouver's Battered Women's Support Services reported an increase in domestic violence of 31 per cent.

During the Stanley Cup playoffs, sexual offences rose 133 per cent in April and 72.2 per cent in May in District 1. By July they had decreased, 68.8 per cent lower than the year before. Some say sex assaults increase with an increase of people, but Tourism BC stats show there are as many hotel stays in the average summer month as there were for the Olympics. There is no correlation between increased hotel stays and sexual offences, according to Vancouver police. An increase in sex offences directly tied to men's hockey games is not mentioned in any VANOC or police Olympic reports, or in last week's report.

We can continue to tell these tragic stories or we can take a critical and painful look at our deeply violent relationship to a beautiful game. The Stanley Cup riot report ensures the former.


Laura Robinson is the author of Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport. The Vancouver and Whistler Olympics were her fifth as a journalist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2011 A15

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