When done properly, a hockey fight between two (or more) consenting adults is a beautiful tradition with its own rules. There’s a disagreement between opposing players due to a rough hit or perceived dirty play – either in the immediate moments before a fight or in a prior meeting. Then there’s a square-up, a silent agreement between the two enemies that a brawl is about to happen. After that there’s a roar from the crowd as they realize what’s taking place, and finally, a slippery festival of lefts and rights as both players attempt a delicate balancing act in which they damage their opponent with punches without embarrassing themselves by falling on their asses. (There’s a reason they don’t sanction proper boxing matches on skates!)
The hockey fight looks to be a dying art, sinking below a fight every five games in the NHL – and rightfully so, given the fact that the NHL’s top enforcers of yesteryear have a habit of dying too young. But whether they’re brutal or sloppy, they’re woven into the history of the sport just as much as dramatic goals or show-stopping saves. For my own favorite team, the Detroit Red Wings, former team bodyguard Darren McCarty’s beatdown of Claude Lemieux for a dirty hit on his teammate Kris Draper remains one of the franchise’s most iconic moments – perhaps more memorable than anything besides Steve Yzerman’s double-OT winner in the 1996 playoffs.
But even though, to the average outsider, a hockey fight may look like mindless violence on ice, there are still some lines you don’t cross. And Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway stepped over one of them on Monday night during his team’s win over the Anaheim Ducks. The second period of the game was a bizarre and angry sequence that included a Washington goal and also featured Hathaway nailing Derek Grant with a couple of rights that dropped his opponent to the rink. And as the refs tried to restore order and divide the dueling parties, Hathaway took a punch from Erik Gudbranson and responded by express-mailing a glob of spit right into the Ducks defenseman’s face.
Asked about the incident after the game, Hathaway had an inspiringly passive explanation – one that placed the blame on Gudbranson’s fist for forcing the spit’s escape. “Unfortunately, spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went on to him,” Hathaway said. “It has no place. It was an emotional play by me. You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head, and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me to a sucker punch.”
But as the recipient of that spit noted, what Hathaway did was inexcusable for a self-respecting hockey player. “That’s about as low as you dig a pit, really,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a bad thing to do. It’s something you just don’t do in a game, and he did it.”
Gudbranson’s reaction – which places spitting as a much more serious offense than punching in hockey’s hierarchy of dastardly deeds – is backed up by the enforcement of the rules after the scuffle. While a total of 50 penalty minutes got dished out between the offenders, only Hathaway was tossed from the game, because unlike fighting, spitting is a match penalty. (He’ll have a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday to determine whether or not he’ll get a suspension.)
Again, this might seem odd to outsiders – personally, I’d much rather be spit on than punched by a 6ft 2in, 210lbs man like Garnet Hathaway, because I’m newly freelance and don’t think I can afford a trip to the hospital right now. But a clue to the unique evils of spitting comes from Hathaway’s earlier quote. Though he notably does not defend spitting, he also makes clear that he was pissed off by the specific “sucker punch” that Gudbranson gave him when the ref was trying to cool them off, rather than the entirety of the fight. And Gudbranson, though he could handle Hathaway getting violent when both teams were willingly exchanging blows, condemned his opponent when he escalated the encounter into something non-traditional and unexpected.
You can draw parallels between the Ducks-Capitals encounter and last Thursday’s NFL game between the Browns and the Steelers, in which Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett had pundits calling for his arrest when he hit Pittsburgh Mason Rudolph with the quarterback’s own helmet. Though football is a violent game where players suffer season-ending and career-threatening injuries on a weekly basis, swinging a helmet at an opponent is completely outside the norms of that violence. Browns safety Damarious Randall was ejected in that very same game for a hit on Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson that had Johnson bleeding from the ear, but it was Garrett who dominated the following morning’s headlines and drew an indefinite suspension from the league.
There’s a huge difference between Garrett’s swing and Hathaway’s gross and disrespectful but ultimately harmless spitting, but the line between acceptable and unacceptable in sports can seem microscopically fine in situations like these. In hockey, though, the rule of thumb is simple. If your opponent sees you and is ready for action, your fists have license to fly. But if your attack is unpredictable and out-of-nowhere – say, spitting on an opponent, or licking him, or just delivering a hit to the head on a defenseless skater – be prepared to be branded as a villain, and watch your back the next time you step on the ice.
More information: The Guardian.