The Englishness of Ice Hockey

An Enquiry

Everyone knows that hockey is Canada’s sport. Not everyone knows that hockey was invented by the English. There are some peculiarities to the play of the game that seem quaintly English, but I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. Particularly in the penalty phases of the game there are Englishnesses, but from what philosophical tradition do they come? To wit:

  • Penalties in general: result in the offending player being sent off the ice for a designated period of time, during which his team must play with fewer players than their opponents.
  • Minor penalties: for minor infractions of game play, mostly involving “bad form,” as it were, putting the stick in the wrong place, clutching with the hands, crashing into an opposing player while he is in a vulnerable position, and the like, there is a two-minute penalty.
  • Double Minor penalties: for the same infractions as “bad form”, except involving an added carelessness, there is a four-minute penalty.

Okay, one can perceive some sort of sensibility at work here. However, another class of penalties highlights the peculiarities of the culture of ice hockey. I’m curious: do they illustrate a relationship to the culture which flourished on Great Britain until the middle of the Victorian Era? As follows:

  • Major penalties: for crimes of passion and premeditation, such as outright fighting with the fists, the offending players are sent off the ice for five minutes, but the offending players’ teams are not further penalized by having to play with fewer players; instead, play continues normally.
  • Misconduct penalties: for particularly egregious crimes of passion and premeditation, where, in the judgment of the game officials the player is out-of-control, there is a ten minute penalty. But, again, the offending player’s team continues to play normally.
  • Game Misconduct penalties: most oddly, for completely uncivilized game play, such as using the hockey stick as a weapon, a player will not only be sent off the ice, but out of the immediate playing area, being exiled, as it were, from the environs of hockey. What’s particularly odd about this penalty is that, like exile, the player may return to the ice after an extended period of time!
  • Match penalties: the player is deemed unfit for civil society and is ejected, never to return, also without further penalty to his team. What provokes such a penalty? Premeditated intent to injure or harm his opponent.

So (the layperson may reason) why is fighting not considered a premeditated intent to injure or harm? Well, I don’t rightly know, but I understand. If you will: a hockey fight is, in general, a gentleman’s agreement that the parties involved have some bad blood between them, stemming from some ancestry or another, perhaps not even of immediate provenance, but of ancient yore (e.g., an incident by completely different players from several games ago), and a fist fight will leech some of that bad blood. A match penalty, on the other hand, is a judgment made by the game officials that there is no gentleman’s agreement, that the barbarian has been unleashed. And that, my friends, will never do.

Mark Fraser, Cody McCormick

Aside from boxing, no other sport even tolerates fighting, much less develops a complex arrangement of unspoken agreements and concomitant delineated penalties.

Where does this come from?

2 thoughts on “The Englishness of Ice Hockey

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