In what is probably the best movie ever made about professional athletics, exuberantly enthusiastic hockey goon Steve Hanson inquires of the near criminally sociopathic hockey goon Ogie Ogilthorpe, "Hi Ogie. Buy you a soda after the game?". If you've never seen the 1977 classic Slap Shot, go rent it today (in the event you have to talk anyone into it, it does star Paul Newman, so there's that). Players and non-players alike laugh at this scene but I fear for different reasons. It is set up as the classic absurdist moment within the context of the drama- why ever would two utter goons make nice after the game? For the player, however, there is an additional dimension. Hockey players do make nice after the game, even after trying to beat the living crap out of one another.
Here begineth the lesson.
[available]Hockey is just one example of a competitive sport which features a reasonable amount of interpersonal violence and the capacity for injury within a loose conglomeration of formal and informal rules. It also features enforcement mechanisms which are both formal and informal which may not align strictly with the nature of the infraction. It tends to be on the extreme end because the level of contact permitted within the rules at many levels is...assertive. Furthermore, one of the informal enforcement mechanisms is, not to put too fine of a point on it, fisticuffs. So, it serves as a salient example albeit not the only one that could serve for today's lesson. (Also, I may have played the sport a time or two over the years. )
We'll be mostly discussing the adult, recreational league variant of the sport although many of the same principles apply from high school competitive leagues on up to the pros. Since adult recreational hockey is, relatively speaking, a niche sport which almost by necessity revolves around a rare physical venue (ice hockey and roller hockey for sure, even floor / street / Dek hockey for the more-serious league-type efforts), leagues tend to have a static population. A core of teams with much of the same player group can make up a particular skill level in a given league for years, decades even. Yet there is almost always new blood circulating into the league as kids get old enough to cycle out of school based teams and into the adult leagues, as new people move to town or what have you. So you tend to have established cultures which range from the general ("hockey") to the national (e.g., Canadian vs Soft Euro) to the regional (e.g. Baahhsten vs. Minnesooooootah vs. We Don't Really Have a Hockey Tradition But We Have A Lot of Imports from Elsewhere) and on down to the specific league level.
One essential general level hockey cultural feature is the post-game handshake. Players line up and shake hands one by one, grunting some equivalent of "Nice game, eh?" to each opponent. This is an important demonstration in many sports but perhaps most important for the more violent, body contact based ones. It is essential to show that despite engaging in a competitive and aggressive game, it is at the end buzzer just that. A game. Now I know my readers are all really smart and I hate to insult your intelligence but...is there really anything in life beyond our family relationships that we need to think of in any other way? It's a game. So even goons really should buy each other a soda after the game.
Now as you might expect, one of the most variable and therefore trickiest aspects of hockey is the degree of acceptable physical contact. You've probably seen the professional game, replete with full checking, numerous egregious-looking non-penalized physical interactions and of course, fighting. Even non-fans probably realize that checking is formally acceptable and fighting is not within the formal rules (albeit rather cemented in the informal rules). In between you have a great variety of physical tricks ranging from strategic full-ice all-time aggressive checking to nagging grabs, trips and hooks. The refs can't see everything you know. Even at the professional level this results in great debate about what is "proper" hockey. You tend to hear this chatter around the time of the Winter Olympics, the international Hockey World Championships and the NHL playoffs.
In adult recreational play you most frequently have non-checking leagues so all that is left is the degree of nagging, grabbing low level physical play that dances in and around the formal rules. Perhaps because of the non-checking stipulation, you seem to always have a range between people that think you are playing a version with everything right up to out and out checks permitted and people who think you are not just playing non-check but non-contact hockey. The "level" of physical play has a tendency to be culturally determined and so from league to league one can see quite a difference. In my view, there is nothing particularly better or worse about the level set by a given league and community but it is very important to recognize cultural variability. There is always some assclown who can't understand this.
It usually goes along the following lines. Some new guy (there are women playing in majority-male leagues but only rarely IME) comes into the "non-check" league and starts to play at a neutral level of physicality. In the course of a few games, he'll either be in a league-enemies game or play the goon team or run across the barely-tolerated league knucklehead. And decide "Oh ho! That's what kinda league this is?"- usually from the self-importantly enraged type of perspective. Next thing you know the guy is going all wackaloon to the max, drawing repeated penalties and shaken heads on both benches.
One of two things happens, either he clues it up within a few games and merges toward community standard or he is never seen in the league again. I should mention that there is also the opposite number who expresses the offended Soft Euro / Princeling phenotype and complains incessantly about being fouled. Again, these types generally get shaped into accepting the community standard....or they disappear.
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It can sometimes be difficult to see the core unspoken limits when joining new social organizations. Those organizations may permit individuals who, in the case of hockey, practice a level of physicality and even cheapshottery that is barely tolerated (usually cause the dude has other redeeming features) or at least pushes the envelope. The grudge match games between traditional enemies may appear less friendly than is in fact the case or may simply represent that one tolerable rivalry. It is easy to mistake these examples as generally representative of the cultural tone, rather than being the extreme end of the distribution. Most players have no trouble eventually recognizing this and re-calibrating their approach to the league standard. A few are unable to get it, even after repeated trips to the penalty box, and they frequently decide to stop playing or are not invited back in subsequent seasons. Perhaps they find a better fit in another league, I don't know. For the most part even the guys who have taken a few too many slapshots off the helmet clue in after a couple of games.
For me there is one final essential rule which can be expressed as "Hey, c'mon guys, we all have to get up and go to work in the morning". It is, after all, only a game. Why would you want to make someone decide to quit the game because it wasn't worth the risk of a torn ACL, dislocated shoulder or concussion..just so you can play your way?
Here endeth the lesson.
With a nod (but that thing was so cheezy I'm not really going to say with apologies).