NHL permissiveness is in fact the main reason why the Forbes incident did end up in the courts, an extreme action that practically no one favors and anyone could prevent. Yet as long as Clarence Campbell keeps saying things like "There'll always be fighting in hockey" and "You don't change a successful formula," further litigation looms as a very real threat.
Another Campbell truism—"If violence ceases to exist, it will not be the same game"—suggests that he has never really pondered what hockey might be like without all the cheap shots and brawls. Prosecutor Flakne has. "I sometimes wonder," he mused during a break in the trial, "when I see the Russian and Olympic teams with their emphasis on teamwork, finesse and passing, why it is necessary to get into needless fights."
Others, too, seem disgruntled about the sport's changing style of play that has evidenced itself in penalty statistics. In 1967-68, the season in which the NHL first expanded from six teams, Barclay Plager of the St. Louis Blues was the league's leading bad man with 153 penalty minutes, a game average of 3.1 minutes; last season Philadelphia's Dave Schultz recorded 472 minutes, a 6.2 average. The Boston Bruins were the most penalized team that first season with a total of 1,043 penalty minutes (14.1 average); last season Philadelphia's total was 1,969 minutes (24.6 average). After one jarring collision with Philadelphia's notorious Mean Machine, Brad Park, then of the New York Rangers, observed, "Until this series I always considered a hockey fight something that happened after a flare-up. But with the Flyers, we find that fights are started deliberately." Indeed, the two-fisted crudities that the Boston Bruins adopted in the late 1960s, the Philadelphia Flyers have refined into a new martial art: selective, premeditated violence. Students of the dark craft conclude that the motto of Philadelphia's designated hitters is "strike only when behind and always at a star."
And why not? says Schultz, the Flyers' most celebrated bullyboy. "It makes sense to try and take out a guy who's more important to his team than I am to mine. If I take out Brad Park, that's not a bad trade, is it?"
Darn right it is because instead of seeing a gifted player perform, fans are forced to watch a petty mugging. The question here is: What kind of audience is hockey trying to satisfy? Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke says he knows: "If they cut down on violence, people won't come out to watch. Let's face it, more people come out to see Dave Schultz than Bobby Orr. It's a reflection of our society. People want to see violence."
If so, it is a sad requiem for a great sport. But there is a confusion of terms here. If by violence Clarke means the hard, aggressive play that fans enjoy in all contact sports, he may have a point; but if he means the calculated fistfights or mindless stick swinging, then he is woefully wrong. Among other things, polls have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of fans prefer hockey without the hokum. (True, in questions of taste, people tend to upgrade their real preferences to impress friends as well as pollsters, but that vaguest of suspicions seems to be the only reason why hockey feels compelled to sell violence.)
As for the reflection-of-society claim, it is too simple to say that the assassins pictured on the sports pages are the reverse side of the assassins on the front page. If sports violence is glorified, if it seems oversold, it is the media that must share a portion of the blame. For instance, the same day that
The New York Times
devoted the second page of its sports section to a long article on violence based on the Forbes affair, on the first page it ran a photograph of two hockey players duking it out on the ice. NBC was also guilty of catering to baser instincts when it not only used a film clip of a fight to promote its NHL Game of the Week but signed Ted Lindsay, one of hockey's legendary hit men, to do the color commentary. Terrible Ted knew what he was there for and he delivered. His sensitive appraisal of one stick-swinging skirmish: "That's layin' the ol' lumber on 'im! The hockey stick is the great equalizer!"
But Lindsay is gone now and so, too, this season is NBC's nationwide hockey coverage, a victim of puny ratings. Generally deaf to criticism, the NHL does pay attention to public response when it is measurable in dollars and cents. Even so, if the 30 years of Campbell's reign are any criteria, there is little hope for immediate change. Campbell has been making conciliatory noises for years—in 1955 when Maurice Richard stick-whipped a rival and then hit a linesman twice in the face, in 1956 when Doug Harvey hacked Red Sullivan in the stomach with his stick and ruptured Sullivan's spleen.... And on and on into the 1970s, the "golden age" of hockey when there have been attacks on the rinks that would not be tolerated in the parking lots. Like the night Vic Hadfield, then of the Rangers, swung at Linesman Alan Glaspell, or the time Atlanta's Dan Bouchard assaulted Referee Dave Newell. In any other sport such outrages would result in the offender being thrown out of the league or, at the very least, barred for most or all of the season. Hadfield and Bouchard, by Campbell's decree, did not have to miss a single game.
Incredibly, instead of swift and stern discipline, Campbell offers praise. "I think the players play with fantastic restraint," he says, and to prove that the NHL version of hockey is "socially acceptable" he notes with some pride that the Forbes affair was "only the second time we have had civil problems." (Actually it was the third time. The first involved two separate trials in 1970 in which Ted Green and the late Wayne Maki were both acquitted in Ottawa after a vicious stick-flailing clash. The second occurred in 1973 when Philadelphia's Bob Taylor, one of half a dozen Flyers who charged into the stands to battle fans and police, was found guilty of assaulting a cop and fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail by a Vancouver judge, who later suspended the jail term.)
Given the NHL's pat rationalizations, some fans might well concur with one of the prospective jurors in the Forbes trial. "It's the players' prerogative," he said to the court before being dismissed. "If they want to smash each other's brains out, that's all right with me."