The first round of the NHL playoffs are over and you’ll forgive me if I feel a little like I’ve just returned from ancient Rome. Postseason hockey resembles nothing more than the gladiatorial sacrifices of the Colosseum. Year after year, popular media and fans alike sadistically revel in stories of players who’ve taken one for the team. In a recent piece entitled “Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds played through an absurd list of debilitating injuries in 2018,” for example, one columnist gleefully proclaimed, “To say NHL players are notorious for their toughness is like saying that Wayne Gretzky was pretty OK at hockey,” and went on to call Simmonds, “the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Archaic film references aside, there’s an uproarious catalogue of harms to talk about here. Simmonds played out the season with a broken ankle, a pelvic tear, a pulled groin, torn ligaments in his thumb, and the loss of six teeth. “If you looked at his postseason injury report, you’d say he had recently had a terrible accident” said the columnist. Hilarious, amiright?
Let’s be honest, athletic sacrifice is the fuel that propels fandom. Fans pay to follow the fortunes of their favorite teams because the competitions of pro sport seem to matter. This is, of course, an illusion. If capitalism is an endless quest for marketable commodities, spectator sport serves as its grail, but only because it appears sacred. Every time an athlete lays their body down for the team, the entire project of pro sport is vindicated. After all, line cooks at Burger King aren’t sacrificing themselves in the name of the Whopper. (Dear God, I mean, I hope they aren’t.) Athletic sacrifice is proof positive that sports matter.
Such narratives of stoical and selfless sacrifice also erase the much more inglorious occupational realities they experience day-to-day in professional hockey.
It is no surprise, then, that fans lap it up when players treat the ice rink like Fallujah. In interviews for my new book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport, fans repeatedly talked about how satisfying it was to watch players struggle through injury. One said, “If you get injured on the ice, if you get a slap shot in the knee, and you can’t really stand on it, you’re told to stay on the ice until the whistle goes. You’re not told to lie down or skate over to the bench, you’re going to play through the pain … it’s awesome to see.” Another delighted in how, “A guy takes a hundred mile an hour slap shot on the ankle and finishes the play and skates off, and he’s got a fractured ankle or whatever.”
While satisfyingly aggrandizing for players, such narratives of stoical and selfless sacrifice also erase the much more inglorious occupational realities they experience day-to-day in professional hockey. The truth is that playing through pain has as much to do with the precarious employment conditions that professional athletes experience (much like those of us in nearly every other sector of the economy, including me: a contingent, albeit blessedly-unionized academic) as it does with a desperate desire to prove masculinity or devotion to any other ‘noble’ athletic principle. One former NHL player told me: “If I didn’t play, they’d call somebody up, which is always a chance that that guy takes your job… So I would always have to play hurt.”
Surprise, surprise, the pressure to play through the pain comes straight from coaches and the MBA-educated bureaucrats in management those coaches report to. A former American Hockey League (AHL) goaltender mused: “I think a lot of players are afraid to admit it, but there is pressure from management, especially if it’s not a real bad injury, especially the guys that are making a ton of money, they’re expected to produce and play games.” In fact, unprompted, multiple players told me they were treated like a “piece of meat”—a neat, if hackneyed, metaphor for the dehumanizing qualities of their work.
After careers end the accumulated damage to their bodies becomes more apparent.
It’s jarring to hear former players recount the sometimes-horrific violence inflicted upon their bodies as banality, but one disturbing consequence of the imperative to play through injury is the way it is internalized. On the subject of a fractured jaw and serious concussion, one former-player recounted, “My jaw was fractured at three different places. And, obviously, when you get a broken jaw, I mean, the chances are you are probably [concussed]. [Laughs.] There was so much focus put on the broken jaw, nobody worried too much about concussion symptoms. So two weeks later, I was back on the ice, practicing and playing.” Another former NHL player rattled off his most memorable injuries like it was a grocery list: “Broken back. Shattered heel. Two shoulder operations. I had, I think, fifteen operations through my career. You know, many concussions. Yeah.” Yeah.
Although the profane martyrdom of athletic sacrifice may seem justified to players in the moment (by pay, prestige, or macho self-image), perspectives can shift after careers end and the accumulated damage to their bodies becomes more apparent. One former NHL player whose career ended due to a knee injury remarked, “Most guys who leave the game will have something that they’re dealing with today and as the years go on it increases, meaning the older I get, the worse the pain gets. I know that when I get together with the boys every once in a while, the conversation turns to, ‘So how are you feeling?’ You know? ‘What are you dealing with?’ Very few guys actually come out of the game with no injury or no lasting effects on their body.” As another put it, “Today, looking back, obviously [those injuries had] a major effect. You are marked, you know what I mean?”
If the athlete is a piece of meat, then we need to face how the sausage of professional hockey is made. The Black Knight bit was funny because it was absurd. A man with aggressively bleeding limb stumps insisting “’Tis but a scratch,” or that he’s “had worse,” or that “It’s just a flesh wound!” rests firmly in the realm of unreality. Modern athletes and their injuries, by contrast, are soberingly real. There is something morally debased about celebrating as human beings literally drop years from their lives in the service of entertainment, no matter how much sports and fandom might compensate for the desperation capitalism makes all of us feel. Playoff hockey isn’t The Hunger Games… except that, if you squint, it sort of actually is. Sausages taste delicious, but that doesn’t make the slaughter any less grisly.