In a sport where driving your fist into an opponent's face is tolerated, the uproar over the pre-game tiff between Sean Avery and Darcy Tucker the other night is a bit surreal. Such incidents always elicit responses from those who seem to have a hyper awareness of some kind of honour code that respects a certain "line" that they of course would never cross.
That line apparently applies to both actions and words. Where exactly is that line then, regarding what is allowable in terms of physical play? Does it stop in front of launching an assault against another player who is much smaller and doesn't want to fight? No, that happens all the time.
How about continuing to hammer one's fist into an opposing player's face once he is down on the ice and prone? Again, no. That is a regular occurrence in the NHL. While many of these actions may be ostensibly prohibited in the NHL, everyone knows they are brazenly condoned. The reality is that there is an ever-shifting "code" that is invoked only when it suits the player wanting to issue threats and set up a good revenge scenario.
So why the outrage over a few words exchanged before the start of a game? With blunt actions go blunt words and vice versa. With expectations of an all out war against an opposing team, surely you bring out the heaviest verbal artillery as well. Why would you care what a detested punk on the opposing team had to say about you or one of your team-mates? Why let someone control your emotions and throw you off your game?
Unless of course you are secretly or subconsciously thrilled at the license it provides to act in a certain way and occupy a desired role (victim, avenger, etc.) It even supplies the freedom to openly issue threats in public, the kind which would spark a visit from the local police for most people (what a liberating sense of being outside the law it must be for many professional athletes.)
Wade Belak's fantasizing about what could happen to Sean Avery in the future if he provides the desired provocation is oddly reminiscent of gun lovers and their drooling over the thought of criminals giving them the opportunity to be heroes.
Aside from all that though, what I'm still trying to get my head around, is what exactly could Avery have said about Jason Blake's cancer (If that is in fact what his comments were about. And that story is losing credibility by the day.) "You like suckin' back those pills every day punk?"
As horrible as cancer is, it just seems there are better sources of insults for getting under someone's skin. After going through the shock of hearing the news for the first time and reconciling yourself to a life forever changed, I think any derogatory comments would come across as oddly meaningless.
There are much more effective ways to get people riled up. It's no coincidence that the nastiest insults in languages the world over are based on a person's mother and a certain part of her anatomy.
But despite the lack of any hard proof about Avery going after Blake for having the audacity to be afflicted with cancer, why did that rumour quickly gain traction? Because it doesn't take a genius to know what most people's vulnerabilities are. And we all have some unpleasant, if usually unarticulated, thoughts bouncing around inside our skulls.
That's part of the reason why in many instances words can come close to actions in sending people over the edge. And it's interesting how often words seem to cut deeper than actions. Getting knocked down and kicked in the guts is one thing. But being mocked and ridiculed is somehow even worse and stokes the fires of murderous rage.
Maybe being called a gutless maggot after you've been flattened compounds things a thousand times over because now there's some validity to the claim and the thoughts of self-doubt are more open to confirmation than ever before.
Except in cases where someone is physically injured, actions disappear into the ether the moment they occur. The rationalizing narratives that remain are designed to alleviate any discomfort about what really happened and helps us form opinions about ourselves. Someone getting inside our minds and churning things up with a well placed insult can be distressing and may force us to confront buried truths.
We all know that regardless of what was really said, Darcy Tucker is really most concerned about his opponents behaving in a more respectful way when they come to the Air Canada Centre. Tucker, Toronto fans and all those who love the game of hockey really don't want any villains that ratchet up the intensity and potential for an explosive rivalry between the New York Rangers and the Leafs.
There just wouldn't be enough "class" in a situation like that.