If it had happened on a street corner in the North End, rather than the ice surface at TD Garden, it would’ve been at least a misdemeanor, if not a felony.
During a stoppage in a hockey game last Saturday, December 7, Boston Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton approached Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik from behind, casually tripped him, and bashed his head into the ice multiple times with his forearm. Orpik was immediately evacuated to a local hospital; he had lost consciousness for 30 seconds and was later diagnosed with a concussion.
The assault was ostensibly Orpik’s comeuppance for an arguably legal-but-violent hit on Bruins star Loui Eriksson earlier in the game. Thornton’s vengeance, though, was sneaky and brutal even by the standards of a game known for its brand of frontier justice.
Those who have defended Thornton’s battery have generally done so with reference to what hockey people call “The Code” (cue ominous timpani). “The Code” is shorthand for the informal standards of gentlemanly conduct that govern the game. According to some interpretations of “The Code,” Orpik was obligated to fight Thornton (bare-knuckle fighting remains a common occurrence in hockey) after the former’s borderline hit on Eriksson. Having failed to do so, Orpik is thought to share the blame for any harm that might come to him later in the contest.
The idea of “The Code” is viscerally appealing because it posits a miniature society governed by shared understandings rather than strict rules. In a culture where daily experiences seem more driven by actuarial logic than interpersonal intuition, “The Code” offers an oasis of informality. “The Code” is the promise of a truly free, self-governing society, where standards are enforced communally rather than by external fiat. It is a profoundly conservative concept, and it is undoubtedly one of hockey’s most compelling attributes.
This being said, no reasonable understanding of “The Code” includes a place for Thornton’s assault. Many of his defenders aren’t even fans of the Boston Bruins, for whom partisan bias could serve as an excuse for moral callousness. This attitude can’t be motivated by a misguided striving for the attractive informality described above; the point of “The Code,” rightly understood, is to avoid incidents like this, not to encourage them. Rather, the impulses here are far less appealing.
It’s no secret that we live vicariously through celebrities, athletes included. The more atomized a society becomes, the more our identities become bound up in abstract concepts and popular culture, rather than in the concrete communities of family, church, etc. Lacking in our own lives the social raw materials with which to build our self-concept, we grasp for whatever else might be available to construct an identity.
In the case of hockey violence, it is clear that for many men their concept of their own masculinity is intimately tied up with sports fandom. The venom of the epithets hurled at players who do not meet certain standards of machismo, such as in bastardized versions of “The Code,” demonstrates just how tightly these men have tethered their self-image to others’ manly sporting exploits. Making hockey a less violent game by, for instance, banning fighting is so resisted by this cohort because doing so would rob them of the ability to vicariously prove their mettle.
This is, in a word, pathetic.
These men are not just pathetic in that they are pitiable: The word “pathetic” comes from the Greek “pathos,” which means “suffering.” And there is a real element of suffering here—there must be, if one is so desperate as to tie one’s identity to professional sports. It is the suffering of alienation in a society that values less and less the associations and responsibilities from which authentic identities are formed.
Professional sports are not inherently unhealthy for society. But as their cultural stature expands as civil society wanes, we must grapple with the danger that our coliseums will begin to live up to their name.