Battling culture of toughness in hockey part of challenge in preventing head injuries

History shows the acceptance of violence, playing through pain are values passed on by hockey players for more than a century, say U of A experts.

Tia Lalani - 10 July 2018


In January 1907, Montreal police arrested Alf and Harry Smith along with Baldy Spittal, all members of the Ottawa Silver Seven hockey team, in connection with a violent on-ice stick attack carried out against three players of the Montreal Wanderers.

Spittal and Alf Smith were not suspended by the league but were found guilty of assault and fined $20 and $19 respectively. However, the charges against Harry Smith were dropped, thanks in part to some less than incriminating testimony offered up by his alleged victim, Ernie "Moose" Johnson.

According to a Montreal Star reporter covering the trial, Johnston said he was ". . . struck by a blow coming from somewhere, he couldn't tell where, and delivered by someone, he couldn't tell who. He never lost consciousness, he did not fall on the ice because the blow knocked him out, [but rather, when he lay on the ice] it was simply to keep the blood from running onto his clothes that he remained prone on the ice."

Johnson's reluctance to testify against his attacker is, according to Stacy Lorenz, a hockey historian with the University of Alberta's Augustana Campus, part of a culture that supported and justified violence in hockey that still persists more than a century later.

"We are suggesting that the behaviors and approach of hockey over 100 years ago taught people how to respond to injury, with the same expectations today as there were then."

Lorenz, along with his colleague, Augustana sociologist Geraint Osborne, presented their socio-historical approach to hockey at the The Hockey Conference - Edmonton 2018 held at U of A over the weekend.

"Although injuries in sport continue to be treated mainly as a scientific, medical, or technological problem, we argue that a sociological and historical approach would help us understand current issues around health and injury, especially concussions," he said.

Lorenz's recent work looks at violence in hockey in the early part of the 20th century, which featured murder trials of two players who stood accused of killing opponents with their hockey stick. In each case, the offending player was acquitted largely because such violence was deemed intrinsic to the sport.

"It's not just violence itself, but also how people respond to violence, and what the expectations are in terms of dealing with injury-playing through pain, withstanding punishment, just persevering," he said.

Lorenz noted he has early 20th century newspaper clippings that show the gendered expectations of "manly hockey players" being required to "take their taps like men."

"And if you couldn't, that was obviously a sign of weakness, softness and what they called in the early 20th century 'a squealer,'" said Lorenz. "When you did complain that a team was too tough, then you are not living up to the standard of what we expect from a hockey player."

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