By age 18, the average American has witnessed 200,000 acts of violence on television, most of them during Game 1 of the NHL playoff series between Detroit and Anaheim last week on ESPN2. Two minutes into that game, while a trainer ministered to a player bleeding from the head, announcer Gary Thorne enthused, "Our first first aid of the Stanley Cup playoffs!" Only then had the professional hockey postseason officially begun—with a ceremonial first stitch.
Hockey belongs on The Cartoon Network, where a person can be pancaked by an Acme anvil, then expand—accordion-style—back to full stature, without any lasting side effects. No other sport has so much violence without consequence. Hockey players are always hemorrhaging, never hurt. How do they do it? "By the time this series is over," analyst Bill Clement said of one badly bloodied Mighty Duck, "Jason Marshall is going to look like he had his face stuck in a food processor!" Indeed, Marshall already resembled a man who had been bobbing for piranha in a Cuisinart set on puree, yet the camera caught even him laughing sardonically at his predicament, as might a cartoon tomcat who had just had his face blackened by a bomb shaped like a bowling ball.
Hockey players, alone among athletes, are bound by the laws of Hanna-Barbera. In the Detroit- Anaheim opener, Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman took the butt end of a stick to the face—a felony in any other context of North American life—and returned moments later with a black circle around his left eye so that he looked like the dog on The Little Rascals. As if to clinch the fact that it was all a cartoon, Yzerman soon scored, and afterward, on SportsCenter, acted as if nothing untoward had happened. "There were," he said, "a lot of good body-checks out there."
In this same, single NHL playoff game, Anaheim goalie Guy Hebert lay as lifeless as a sack of rice on the ice after being clipped in the head by a skate. While a trainer waved a hand in Hebert's face, Clement said (as if it were barely worth mentioning), "They're now checking for vital signs." He said it in the way a baseball analyst might say, "They're now throwing in the Texas bullpen." As any longtime viewer of Looney Tunes could anticipate, Hebert skated off the ice in apparent good health, his head harmlessly encircled by bluebirds.
"Hockey players are considered the most polite and genuine of all professional athletes," studio host John Buccigross said on the Deuce's NHL2Night last week. He's right. But that postgame Canadian courtliness only makes their manifold bloodletting, their jack-o'-lantern smiles, their incidents of assault-with-a-deadly-Sher-Wood seem all the more unreal.
I was reflecting on this last Thursday night when a member of the St. Louis Blues used his stick like a croupier's rake to rein in Phoenix captain Keith Tkachuk. Struck hard in the face with a stick blade, Tkachuk reflexively put a hand to his mouth, then casually checked his open palm, fully expecting to locate his teeth there. Then he simply skated on, unaffected, as if it were all a trick of animation, a fact borne out by the logo on his jersey.
A cartoon coyote.