On Rules, Player Ethics and Scapegoats


Don't Think Cooke Played In This Game

Ryan posted a very interesting article this morning, and it got me thinking. This isn’t my response to that topic, but rather a question which has a direct relation to that particular subject. How exactly do rule changes affect our perception of player ethics?

My topic brings me back to the Scott Stevens vs. Matt Cooke scenario. In short, Scott Stevens is still considered an All Star NHL defenseman and a legend while (honourable mention to Sean Avery) Matt Cooke currently holds the mantle of the most hated man in hockey.

If you disregard their positional differences and differences in their respective skillset (which I need to do for this debate – because both have no merit in assessing sportsmanlike conduct, even if Colin Campbell didn’t seem to think so), they both basically hit other players with a clear intent to injure.

Why is it then, when we look at one such player today, we call for his immediate banishment from the league and we applaud the other for his bone crunching hits? Could it be that a simple change of rules for game of hockey has such a profound and immediate influence on our understanding of ethical conduct in hockey?

When looking at the current situation, that has to be the case. Matt Cooke and Scott Stevens both had a detrimental impact on the careers of other NHL hockey players. The rules of the game in those different eras of hockey basically stated that Stevens’ hits were legal and therefore merited no punishment. On the other hand Cooke’s hits weren’t in accordance with the new law so, naturally, he deserved to be sentenced. That is exactly what happened. Problem is – that’s not the only difference between the two and it really should be. Why? Because, only the rules changed, and it has nothing to do with player-to-player ethics.

In reality, we as fans and the league all claim our perception of the game has changed. We are more mature as fans; we are smarter fans than those that came before. Maybe so, even though I’d disagree with that generalization, but we’re clearly still not smart enough. Why not, when the league and its fans are evolving? I’ll answer this question with another question.

Why do the rules affect our perception of player actions so much so that we forget the past so easily? Isn’t intent to injure just that – intent to injure? The most horrific form of unsportsmanlike behavior there is. So does it matter if a player played with that intent in the past or he does so today? Matt Cooke might be an endangered species in today’s NHL, but he’s certainly not endemic throughout NHL history. Us pretending that he is, only justifies a big part (the past) of what we, as a collective, are trying to erase. All that does is cast a shadow over the whole NHL enlightenment process, making us hypocrites in the process. What else do you call admiring a Stevens hit and labeling Cooke’s dirty?

We celebrate players from previous eras who played on a level we collectively admitted was wrong, and yet we bury guys who break the standing rules and label them as bad human beings. I’m a huge advocate of change, and not “wimpy” change, but a sane one. And that change comes only with a realization of what the league was, why that past isn’t acceptable today, and why it wants/needs to go in another direction. Without that, we don’t really understand the root problem, but are rather just swinging, pretty vigorously I might add, into a sort of correctness that is expected from most sports today. During the process, we’re making Matt Cooke into a scapegoat. In reality, the scapegoat should have been the first player/coach/GM/official who deemed it acceptable to intentionally injure another player (even if that was never publicly admitted) and all those that followed. Yes, it’s as simple as that, so why not recognize it?