Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fight Test: How Hockey Media is Covering Violence in the Game

The big viral video in the hockey world this last week is here, where Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick get in a very contentious, almost physical, confrontation over Eric Nystrom's (really objectionably) hit on Kris Letang. It's actually a little embarrassing if you think of these guys as professional broadcasters. They talk over each other and interrupt, they clench their fists and puff their chests, and at the end, it descends into personal insults and angry recriminations. Roenick may well never back on set with Milbury.

In a sense, I can understand why the confrontation escalated so quickly. Roenick had great success in- and thus, was personally validated by- a system of hockey that did not go nearly as far in policing hits like this. I'm sure that on some level, he feels like any attempt to criticize that system is an attempt to denigrate his accomplishments. Milbury, meanwhile, while a former tough guy (in a much tougher era of the NHL to begin with) is also a hockey dad, and I'm sure he's thinking of his son as the concussion statistics swell and more players see an early end to their careers. It gets personal because it IS personal for these guys. It gets ugly because this is an ugly subject.

But the thing is, NBC didn't have to air it.

I just don't see what the viewers got out of this segment. It's just two men arguing past each other. Nobody challenges Roenick on his assertion that it was on Letang to protect himself (and it would have been easy, just ask, "Okay, how?"). Nobody refutes Milbury when he says Nystrom went off the puck and straight for the hit (though, of course, it'd be hard to refute him on that). Nobody explains the rules on hits, nobody says what the players could have done, nobody examines how the play could have developed (besides Roenick's ridiculous "What if Letang got the puck and skated all the way down the ice and scored an easy goal?" hypothetical). Milbury tries to provide a little bit of context for the debate on hits and concussions, but it's just one stat screen that they both blow past very quickly. This does nothing to educate, inform, or enlighten viewers about the world of hockey.

And it wasn't meant to. Watch the beginning of the video again. The host says that Roenick is brought out specifically BECAUSE he disagrees with Milbury. And look at the two men- they're tense from the very first second. This was a planned argument. It was a set up for these two men to get ugly. It was "Crossfire" on sports, and between Around the Horn and Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, we have way too much of that shit already. Just men competing to see how loud they can yell at each other, and eventually, how personally they can insult each other. Fans get nothing from it, and sports look worse for it.

Hockey hits are a very important topic, and the debate is probably more necessary than the one on fighting. But the debate has to be real, not just Roenick trading his reducto ad absurdiam crap for Milbury's defensive peacocking. Anything else is an insult to the fans.

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