Ice Guardians

This post enables me to combine two of my blogs in one – ice hockey and cinema. If ever I complete the triumvirate with educational technology in one post, it is probably like completing the Tower of Hanoi and signals end of days.

We went to a Cardiff screening of this, thanks to one of the film’s experts being Cardiff’s very own Victoria Silverwood. That in itself was an odd experience, combining all the usual faces of the Ice Arena Wales at the cinema. There was that dislocation of seeing familiar faces in the ‘wrong’ setting.

The documentary sets out to present the case for the “enforcer” in ice hockey, by examining the arguments for and against them. For those not into ice hockey, an enforcer is a tough guy whose role is, ostensibly, to fight. There has been a general move away from the enforcer, and violence in hockey in general, since its heyday in the 70s and 80s. The NHL, nervous of lawsuits and bad headlines, have introduced rules which make the role of the enforcer one that is increasingly difficult for teams to justify or realize.

On this front it looks like part of a wider pattern, as we move to more concussion awareness, and generally away from violence as entertainment. While the film is generally pro-enforcer, it explores the more subtle arguments around this. The case often put forward for an enforcer is that their presence is sufficient to stop worse injuries occurring. It goes like this – if you know the big tough guy will beat on you for taking out their star player with a cheap shot against the boards, then you’re less likely to do it. This argument has a lot of merit, ice hockey is inherently a dangerous sport, with people moving at 30 mph, on blades, carrying a club, surrounding by a wall.

The sensitivity around concussion has also added strength to the anti-enforcer argument. The film states that the main concussion clinic found that in hockey, 5% of concussions arise from fighting, the other 95% from collisions on ice and against boards. Obviously if you are part of that 5% it’s a big deal, but dealing with the other 95% is probably more of a priority.

I am somewhat ambiguous about the enforcer role – unlike some fans I don’t go to hockey to see fights, and I really don’t like a staged fight. It reduces a sport to the spectacle of WWE wrestling. But there’s no doubting that having that guy on your team helps, and sometimes a big hit can change a game. I wouldn’t want to watch teams like the Flyers Broad Street Bullies in the 70s who effectively just beat every team and skilled players out of the game.

Many enforcers, finding themselves strangers in their own land, are coming over the UK to ply their trade. We have the excellent Patrick Bordeleau (who took part in an engaging Q & A afterwards), there is McGrattan at Nottingham and Rosehill at Glasgow. We’re lucky to have these players, and at the moment, I think we have the balance about right. It will be interesting to see if there is an arms race over the next few years to pack a team with tough guys, or whether the blend of skill and toughness stays the same.

In terms of the film, I liked the intention, and execution, to explore a complex issue in a nuanced manner, without polemic. Documentaries seem to have become the purview of conspiracy theorists, so seeing a subject explored with a mix of academic insight, experience and appreciation of the wider issues was refreshing. I’d recommend it for all ice hockey fans, but in our relationship to the enforcer, it also speaks to wider cultural mores.

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