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Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #6 – No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

November 5, 2013 2 comments

On February 14, 1993, a violent altercation occurred at bowling alley in Hampton, Virginia. Described as an all-out brawl, it involved white and black Hamptonians, racial overtones and reckless chair-throwing, as well as some injuries. More importantly, however, it involved a junior from Hampton’s Bethel High School who also happened to be one of the best high school basketball players in the United States: Allen Iverson.

The 17-year-old Iverson, already an athletic phenom who had led Bethel to state titles in basketball and football, was charged and convicted as an adult and, despite outrage from the city’s African-American community and conflicting versions of the events, was sentenced by a judge to a 15-year sentence, with 10 years suspended. Iverson only served four months before being granted clemency, and the state court of appeals later overturned the conviction due to lack of evidence. But the case affixed a thuggish reputation to the swaggering Iverson that stuck to him through his notable professional career, and left deep scars of resentment in his hometown.

These events and their implications for the city of Hampton are explored in a documentary feature directed by Steve James. The filmmaker behind the seminal basketball documentary Hoop Dreams as well as the more recent The Interrupters, James hails from Hampton, and attended and played ball at Bethel’s rival, Hampton High School. No Crossover therefore takes on a personal angle, as James attempts to fathom the racial and class divisions exposed by the Iverson case in his hometown. The title, a reference to Iverson’s mastery of the swift dribbling move that confounded many a defender, makes it clear that athletic prowess alone was insufficient in allowing Iverson to overcome deep structural prejudices in Peninsular Virginia society.

Although James interviews a legion of locals with some connection to the incident, the trial, or Allen Iverson’s early life and burgeoning sports career, he can’t get near the man himself. Indeed, only one other person who was at the bowling alley that night appears on camera, and he is one of the other three young men who was prosecuted for his part in the melee and says curiously little about what actually happened. But whether Iverson and his fellow accused did what it was claimed that they did or not isn’t really the point of No Crossover. The point James’ film makes instead, subtly but persistently, is that in American society, racial prejudice readily rushes in to fill the void left by the dearth of factual certainties.

No Crossover highlights not only the obvious manifestations of this dividing line, but its subtler shadings as well. Faced with a lack of solid evidence that Iverson was even inside the bowling alley when the chairs started flying (he and a friend both claim that he was hustled out when things got heated, his athletic future paramount in their minds), the state used the pack-aggression confusion to its prosecutionary advantage. Iverson and his three friends were charged under an obscure and rarely-used Virginia statute, a felony charge of maiming by mob. The irony that this law was originally passed with an eye to combat the extra-legal discriminatory practice of lynching is certainly not missed by Hampton’s African-American leaders. It is likewise not lost on any onscreen observer that the Governor of Virginia who granted Iverson clemency was the first African-American elected to a governor’s post in the country, and that he was near the end of his term when he signed the order. That noted, James also cannot resist including a redemptive mentor-student relationship between Iverson and a local white female tutor who aided him in improving his academic standing enough post-conviction to earn a spot at a top university (Georgetown, as it turned out).

It should not be surprising to anyone who followed the NBA through the decade plus in which Allen Iverson was one of the league’s best-known and most polarizing figures that his vaunted “attitude” was ruffling the white establishment’s pristine feathers (and sometimes the black establishment’s as well) before he could even vote. Though he appears fairly clean-cut with a conservative early-90s fade hairdo and a modest gold necklace in No Crossover‘s archival video of his Bethel playing days, Iverson later became the avatar of street-level hip-hop culture and post-modern black masculinity in the world’s best basketball league.

His hair in cornrows, his arms covered with tattoos, teetering on the edge of an explosive tantrum at nearly every moment, launching himself at tenacious opposing defenses with a volatility and controlled recklessness that could be exhilirating and even transgressive, Allen Iverson was a star, no doubt. But his stardom was perceived very differently by black and white audiences, each of which read his street-wise “thug” image (very much burnished by his conviction and imprisonment) from diametrically opposed perspectives.

This gap in perception was succinctly exemplified in his most infamous off-court moment, a press conference rant in which he derisively repeated the word “practice” twenty times to demonstrate his disdain for the sports media’s reverence for an activity that, in his mind, didn’t even count. It was a shot across the bow of the sort of meaningless structures that many young (and some older) African-Americans felt that White America was fond of erecting and that stood between them and the success of white elites. Those who shared these grievances identified with his defiance. Meanwhile, sports media and mainstream fans (many of them white) tut-tutted Iverson’s “bad attitude”, viewing his petulant objections to the focus on his poor practice attendance as proof of his character flaws, and by extension the character flaws of a generation of young black men whose modes of expression they found to be unfamiliar and even frightening.

Iverson officially retired from pro ball in a ceremony in Philadelphia, where he starred for the Sixers, only last week, after last playing in Turkey more than a year ago. His number will be retired by the team in March, a commemorative appreciation that demonstrates how time and memory serve to bevil down sharper edges. James features plenty of footage in his film of the older Iverson mouthing bromides about moving on, staying strong, and believing in himself after his brush with the law as a teen, but also speculates that he harbours an understandable resentment against his hometown for what they put him through after giving Hampton so much of himself as a high school athlete. Ultimately, like so many irruptions of racial prejudice in American history, Allen Iverson’s story lacks a satisfying resolution or explanation. It even lacks a level of basic agreement about where the fault lies, or even if there is fault at all. What remains is a groundswell of low, simmering hostility, like a scalding steam rising from fissures that can neither be closed nor safely bridged.

 

Categories: Reviews, Sports, Television

Ray Emery and the Entwined Deficiencies of Hockey’s “Code” and NHL Discipline

November 2, 2013 1 comment

In the third period of last night’s NHL game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, moments after the Caps had gone up 7-0 over the woeful Flyers (the Oilers have a bad record, but they’re not that bad), some predictable violence ensued. “The Code” of hockey, you see, seems to stipulate that in the event of a lopsided loss, the losing team must show that they won’t be pushed around on the ice as they have been on the scoreboard by engaging in reckless violence outside of the accepted limits of the usual game.

This is part and parcel of the increasingly absurd justifications for violence in the sport favoured by traditionalists, many of which now stem directly from little more than hurt feelings. The recent inevitability of such rough stuff in a blowout loss has made watching such games into a queasy experience for fans not impressed by hockey’s extraneous violence. Fans of the the losing team, in particular, have it especially hard. Not only must those fans witness their team embarrassed in the final score, they must also watch them humiliate themselves with thuggery (although some fans, especially those in Philadelphia last night, were irrationally excited by the punching).

Situations like last night’s are partly a consequence of the general meaningless of score differential in the NHL’s standings structure. If, like in many major European football leagues, goal differential was a primary tiebreaker in the standings at season’s end, running up the score in a lopsided game would have a tangible point, rather than feel like an unsportsmanlike slight by the stampeding victors. Win totals tend to separate deadlocked teams well enough (and with only playoff spots at stake and no relegation in the league, sorting of basement-dwellers is less vital than in, say, the Premier League), but making goal differential at least a secondary tiebreak factor could have some effect at least.

The debate over evading such incidents will be muted, however, when compared to the already-vehement division over the actions of Flyers goaltender Ray Emery in the midst of the wild line brawl that followed the seventh Capitals goal. With each team’s skaters pairing off into fighting duos, Emery skated the length of the ice to challenge Caps goalie Braden Holtby to fisticuffs. Holtby clearly wanted no part of Emery (as the video below demonstrates). Declining a fight is viewed with disdain by proponents of the Code’s hyper-masculine ideology, but the reply by the challenger is rarely to engage in violence nonetheless. Emery was not deterred by Holtby’s evident unwillingness, and attacked him anyway.

As can be plainly seen, Emery lays into Holtby, including some very dangerous punches to the back of the head. It’s a very uneven bout as hockey fights go, and bluff Code-upholders would doubtlessly declare that if Holtby wasn’t such a wuss (if he “defended” himself, as Emery claimed after the game that he gave him an opportunity to do), it wouldn’t have been so bad. But as bad it was, and what made it worse was referee Francois St. Laurent standing by, hands literally on hips, doing nothing to stop it and even waving away Holtby’s Capitals teammate Michael Latta when he attempted to intervene. The Code allows an alarming assault by one player on another, but NHL rules doesn’t allow a third player to enter an established two-player fight. Dangerous actions like Emery’s are punished less strictly than any attempt to prevent them, which is not a ringing endorsement of the league’s ability (or willingness) to curb such incidents.

What this unflattering moment in the continued controversy over pro hockey’s on-ice violence demonstrates is the deficiency of the Code in effectively redressing perceived wrongs and resolving inter-team grievances. Ken Dryden discusses hockey violence in terms of Freudian transference and emotional release in his book The Game, but its uneasy collaboration with league disciplinary standards has proven insufficient in defusing tensions, only extending them, deferring them. Grudges and feuds are rarely resolved with further violence, only exacerbated. They calcify and cease to pain the aggrieved only with considerable time and fallow tensions, and even then can endure as niggling minor dissatisfactions. The Code will not allow this healing period to commence, with its focus on mob-like retribution (and it’s not like a Caps goon is going to fight Emery next time the teams meet, either). Resolution is left to the league’s disciplinary discretion, which is more up to the task but rarely wholly effective either.

This should particularly be the case in the Emery-Holtby incident. Can the NHL suspend a player for fighting another who did not want to fight and beating him badly? Not without setting a precedent that could be fatal for fighting in the sport (and cheers to that possibility, unlikely though it is). Indeed, the referee involved is more likely to be disciplined for his failure to protect Holtby from Emery, to properly manage a volatile situation. But St. Laurent himself was handcuffed by the rules he must uphold. He allowed the players to fight and kept Latta from being the third man in; this, by the letter of the NHL law, was his job. The Code and the Law, in this case, are at clear cross-purposes. And unless one or the other adjusts its shifting but absolute strictures, more black eyes like the one inflicted on the NHL last night in Philadelphia wait in the wings.

Categories: Culture, Sports

The Slow Start of the Edmonton Oilers and the Trials of Nail Yakupov

October 19, 2013 2 comments

Another NHL season has begun, and this time it was supposed to be different. After seven long seasons out of the playoffs, this was the year that the youthful Edmonton Oilers were supposed to have grown and learned enough to at least contend for the second season, if not burst right through that ice ceiling at last, after so long.

Of course, that hasn’t happened, and Oiler fans of the current cynical vintage ought not to be surprised. Going into today’s road tilt against the Ottawa Senators, the Oilers have only a single win through eight games, that one coming in a shootout against the New Jersey Devils. Their losses have included multi-goal defeats at the hands of superior clubs like Vancouver and Washington as well as more dispiriting defeats: they blew a two-goal third-period lead against the Winnipeg Jets in the season opener, and took the stick to the Toronto Maple Leafs (near the top of the league, though perhaps not deservedly so) on national television, only to continuously lose their lead, including in the final minute, before dropping the game gut-wrenchingly in overtime. For a team whose long-suffering fanbase finally expected to be better, it’s been a disappointing opening tenth of what might be another long season.

If I recall, this goal was not Dubnyk’s fault. But it’s so hard to tell sometimes.

When a sports team is not winning, there is never enough blame to go around, and fans and media have been liberal with it. Much of the heat has fallen on starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk, whose decent career numbers have cratered in the opening weeks of the 2013-14 season. Ignoring all the undocumented palaver about his body language or tendency to allow “bad” goals (as opposed, I suppose, to “good” ones), Dubnyk and backup Jason LaBarbera do need to be better if the Oilers are to compete.

But plenty of more salient issues present themselves away from the easy goalie blame-game. The defence in front of the netminders has been prone to chaos in their own zone (especially prized d-man Justin Schultz, who leans offensive more than defensive), and the power play and especially the penalty kill have been putrid, too. Indeed, many of the areas that the Oilers were strong in last year – special teams, above-average goaltending – have gone south, while areas of the game where they were weaker – faceoffs, generating shots, using Ryan Smyth – have gotten much better. Early times, but the Oilers under new coach Dallas Eakins appear to have flipped the script on the Oilers under the last couple of coaches, for good and for ill.

In the midst of the year-opening slump, as if to make matters appear even worse, Eakins decided to leave last year’s rookie phenom Nail Yakupov on the bench for the games in Toronto and Washington. A healthy scratch is one of the nuclear options in a coach’s discipline tactic-book, and has been used on players of more experience and rounded ability than the still-raw former #1 overall pick. It can also be taken to mean more than it does, and before Yakupov return to the lineup for Thursday night’s loss to the New York Islanders, trade rumours lit up the internet with Yakupov as a central piece, perhaps to acquire goaltending help. That the rumours (even those pushed by mainstream media figures) were more than a little ridiculous in their misevaluation of Yakupov’s value did not make them any less alarming to Oiler (and especially Yakupov) fans, present company included.

Leave aside lazy xenophobic distaste for Russian players or skilled offensive dynamos, as well as any blather about “toughness” or “heart” or “two-way game” or whatever other dog-whistle term is used by Canadian fans to justify their tendency for preferring Canadian players to any others. Are Yakupov’s hiccups in learning defensive responsibility or how to play a team game really what kept him out? Is there a personality clash with the evidently intense and demanding Eakins? I’ve not kept my fondness for Yakupov’s extravagant enthusiasm and flair too quiet at all, and have great hopes for his transition from the fledgling folk hero he already is to a bonafide superstar for the Oilers. But these things take work and adversity, not merely talent and skill. Yakupov’s latest trials, like those of his team as a whole, will hopefully presage an overdue rise to come. If they do not, then suffering through them will have proven to be that much more difficult for the team and for its fans.

 

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #5 – A King’s Ransom

August 10, 2013 Leave a comment

August 9th, 2013 marked 25 years since the public announcement of the momentous trade that sent Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player ever, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. It seemed like an appropriate day to finally get around to watching Peter Berg’s 30 For 30 documentary film (the first one aired in the long-running ESPN sports film series) about the deal’s lead-up, its execution, and its long-tailed aftermath, A King’s Ransom. The initial verdict on Berg’s film is that it’s a fairly cursory and facile portrait of an event whose psychic scars are still visible on a certain generation of Edmontonians and whose legacy continues to be manifested in the NHL’s stubborn insistence on succeeding in southern U.S. markets.

But then Berg (director of macho Hollywood dreck like Hancock and Battleship as well as Friday Night Lights, both the film and the more acclaimed television show, which he helped to develop) can only work with what he has. The principal players in the deal – Gretzky himself, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, and Oiler general manager Glen Sather – give a pretty simple picture of the trade-building process. The decision to move Gretzky was influenced by a combination of factors. There was dire economic need: Pocklington was losing money on the Oilers, a trend which continued well into the ’90s when he sold the team and then later filed for bankruptcy, and he got $15 million in cash from the Kings in the deal. There was roster and contract calculation: Sather and Pocklington would have to convince Gretzky to re-sign for less money than he was most definitely worth to keep him in Edmonton and keep a strong team around him, and Gretzky was looking for compensation that befitted the best player in the game at the peak of his powers. They couldn’t let him walk for nothing in another year so as a free agent, so they grabbed assets for him while they could.

But there was a grander, deeper motive behind the deal which has been enshrined as a foundational moment of the modern NHL, and Berg gives it more than a bit of lip service. Quite simply, there was a vague feeling that the game’s greatest player should play in the continent’s glitziest media centre, and that this could only serve to benefit the game’s growth in the U.S. The league, especially under the stewardship of Gary Bettman, has aggressively pushed expansion into non-traditional American markets, often to the perceived detriment of the game’s passionate grassroots in Canada (although, ironically, it is now the muscular incomes of the Canadian franchises that support the zombie American ones through revenue sharing).

In this way, the Gretzky deal – benefitting a southern U.S. franchise and damaging a northern Canadian one – is a sort of creation myth for the contemporary big-money NHL, or perhaps more properly its messianic break from the smash-mouth backwoods heritage of the game. Once the Great One’s name was in lights in Hollywood, there was no going back for the league; flash and glamour were a part of hockey for good, even if they were supported by law-breaking robber barons like McNall (who later spent a few years in prison for fraud). Hardy northern outposts of dedicated fandom like Edmonton would have to return to the wilderness. With the exception of a few playoff series wins around the turn of the millennium and a Stanley Cup Final run in 2006 that is beginning to feel almost as distant as the glory days of the 1980s, the Oilers have mostly wandered in that very wilderness ever since.

As mentioned, A King’s Ransom only addresses these long-established readings in a cursory way: a closing onscreen title half-credits Gretzky’s coming to Los Angeles for the three teams now based in California. Berg also doesn’t do much more to explore the divergent reactions in both cities to the trade other than to show that Edmontonians were pissed (it didn’t help that Pocklington was clumsy at PR and local media hacks like Jim Matheson fanned the flames of anger unwisely) and Los Angelenos sycophantically hopped on the shiny bandwagon (as they are wont to do; witness the glamourous reception for David Beckham when he signed for the MLS’ LA Galaxy a few years ago, despite soccer being even more marginal a sport in the city than hockey was in 1988). Longer-term effects are left unconsidered.

What’s much more interesting is the glimpse A King’s Ransom provides into the perspective and feelings of the Great One and those closest to him concerning the whole affair. Though Gretzky will forever be hockey’s demigod, he has hardly covered himself in glory since retiring from the game, or indeed since leaving the Oilers: no further Cups, only a single MVP, a painful Olympic defeat in 1998, and in retirement, a failed dalliance with co-owning and then coaching the increasingly-disastrous Phoenix Coyotes franchise and a gambling controversy embroiling his wife Janet and a close associate.

Janet appears here, downplaying the role she may have played in the event. Although she was a Hollywood actress (“I saw Police Academy 5!” yells one fan following her wedding limo in the doc, a hilarious summation of her onscreen career) who had married Wayne the same summer as the trade and they had begun living in L.A. in the off-season, she tells us she had nothing to do with any of it. No thinking fan was ever fully comfortable with the misogynsistic tone of the popular effort to cast her as the Yoko Ono of the Boys on the Bus, but neither could a thinking fan believe that Gretzky’s decision was not influenced by his recent marriage to a Californian. Gretzky’s father Walter also shows up, relating how he told his son a few hours after the last Cup win in Edmonton that he would leave for more money soon. The influence of this most famous of hockey fathers is also underplayed, though most inside views have understood the elder Gretzky’s sway over his son was considerable.

Most revealing, however, is how Berg, speaking to Gretzky on a golf course in the film, perhaps inadvertently exposes the great sports hero as a bit of a shallow intellect. When trying to explain his decision to accept the trade, Gretzky says that he decided to leave because he was angry that Pocklington and Sather were thinking of trading him. They were thinking of trading him, so he let them do it; I’m sure that showed ’em. Gretzky is fully aware that more Cups were to be won in Edmonton with that wonderful Oilers team, and from an on-ice perspective, the motivations for the move are much less clear. Indeed, Berg shows plenty of highlights of Gretzky’s prowess with the game, but A King’s Ransom represents one of the first major points in hockey history where what was happening off the ice trumped what was happening on it. In our era of cynical lockouts and shady ownership machinations, perhaps this was the true legacy of the Wayne Gretzky trade. Big business came to NHL hockey in a major way, and the game itself hasn’t regained primacy over the course of its own destiny ever since.

Towards An Aesthetics of Hockey Violence: Fascism, Futurism, and the Boston Bruins

June 18, 2013 5 comments

Contending for the greatest prize in professional hockey for the second time in three seasons, the Boston Bruins are matched against the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals (and took a lead of two games to one in the series with a grinding Game 3 win on Monday night). More than any other current NHL team, the Bruins are surrounded by a discourse that values old-fashioned smash-mouth hockey above all. Even if they are a strong puck-possession team with a protective defensive system (hallmarks of the coaching style of Claude Julien throughout his time in Boston), the Bruins are identified with all of those hoary old clichés clustered around the fading aura of hockey’s traditional culture of barely-controlled violence. Toughness, truculence, hitting, fighting, being “hard to play against”; these tropes are trotted out again and again to explain the current Bruins roster’s successes (which include a Cup in 2011).

Bruins forward Milan Lucic composes his Futurist manifesto, influenced as it is by the critiques of the Frankfurt School.

Certainly, the prevalence of former Bruins players and coaches in the hockey media goes some way towards explaining the spread of the concept of the value of hard-edged hockey. CBC’s hockey coverage flagship Hockey Night in Canada utilized no less than three former Bruins figures in its studio team of only about half-a-dozen not so long ago: Mike Milbury, P.J. Stock, and Don Cherry were also, not so coincidentally, the broadcast’s most stringent voices in favour of fighting, hitting, and violence in the game in general (Stock and Cherry still do defend that battered rampart, as Milbury still would as well, had his preference for physical violence not become unfortunately literal in a minor hockey setting). Other public hockey figures stick up for the role of violence in the game, certainly, but there is an added element of stubborn righteousness to those who have passed through the Bruins organization and into the media. They boast the intransigent certainty of true believers, of ideological foot-soldiers for the cause of Bruinism.

The always detailed and thoughtful Ellen Etchingham takes up this subject in a fascinating recent post in her blogspace at TheScore.ca. Her insightful consideration of the Bruins’ association with conceptions of the role of nastiness, aggression, and above all physical pain concludes that these elements are valued in the hockey context not as means to an end, but as an end in themselves. What matters is not whether smash-mouth hockey leads to winning; there’s little empirical or analytical evidence that it does, and considerable agreement that high hit totals in particular are indicative of a team with poor possession percentages that tends to unproductively chase play. Violence – and for Etchingham, the shared experience and understanding of pain above all – has an aesthetic value in and of itself; indeed, it is perhaps the central defining aesthetic of the sport of hockey, in its traditional delineations.

Etchingham, who loves the game with the passion of a recent convert, conceives this aestheticization of violence and pain as essentially positive or at least grounded in the lived experience of hockey’s fans and thus basically unchallengeable in reality if not in theory. To my mind, however, this aesthetic is more problematic; indeed, even the use of the term “aesthetic”, accurate though it may prove to be, is not without its attendant issues.

My thinking on this point is influenced by the epilogue of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which I have employed on this blog in the past). This epilogue is often overlooked, as its specific contemporary focus on the ideology of the fascist movements sweeping Europe at the time of its composition is less widely applicable than the Marxist critique of industrial production in a cultural context that precedes it. But Benjamin’s consideration of the Futurist concepts of the aestheticization of war does seem to apply, surprisingly, to the Boston Bruins and the aesthetic of hockey violence that circles around them.

My Photoshop skills are insufficient to the task, so you’ll have to simply imagine Walter Benjamin wearing a hockey helmet.

Benjamin discusses the manner in which, in a fascist state that includes a sizable proletarian class but does not threaten the holding of private property, the masses must necessarily turn to the political arena for the purposes of expression. The purest and most powerful method of that expression is through war, which becomes highly aestheticized in the Futurist conception as the ideal melding of human productive activity with industrial processes. Benjamin quotes an Italian Futurist at length as he rhapsodizes about the artistic truth inherent in bullets, shells, and gas masks, about the greatly-desired “metalization” of the human body, about the artistic glories of death in battle and the “symphony” of “the stench of putrefaction”. The massively-industrialized and hugely destructive war launched by the fascists in Benjamin’s home country of Germany shortly after (the upheavals of which cost Benjamin his life) would have come as no surprise to him. Indeed, war is not only inevitable but inevitably desirable in the discourse of fascistic Futurism.

Although the Marxist Benjamin does not connect this aesthetic valorizing of mechanized violence to the concomitant valorization of masculine strength and physical prowess in the mass culture of the fascist states (Nazi Germany in particular), it is this association that connects the aestheticization of war to hockey’s aestheticization of violence. Modern capitalist democracy has diverted the masculine self-expression of the masses away from its centuries-old conduit of martial warfare, ironically due mostly to the increasing mechanization of armed conflict that Futurists embraced as a harbinger of aesthetic fulfilment.

The expression of masculine aggression in the modern West has thus fallen increasingly to the sphere of sports, also famously extolled by the Nazis as a source of aestheticized Aryan glory. From the direct contending of weeknight sports leagues to the vicarious experience of rooting for pro sporting heroes, the masculine aggression of the masses once released in cathartic slaughter in war is now sublimated into the controlled, rule-bound competition of sports. The traditional hockey culture is often accused of glorifying violence, but Etchingham recognizes that what it truly glorifies is the endurance of pain, suffering, and physical difficulty, which are also the elements of war that are so often constructed as romantic and heroic. Hockey, therefore, is an ice-bound kabuki of teeth-gritting fortitude in the face of hardship enacted for the edification of the generally white, male, conservative, proletarian fanbase of the sport, or for the edification of this fanbase’s own hardscrabble daily negotiation of an increasingly obscure post-capitalist socioeconomic reality through association with their heroes’ struggles with adversity.

The point of this discussion is not to suggest that the Boston Bruins are Nazis (although Brad Marchand at least has probably been called worse), nor to simply equate sports to war in the one-for-one euphemistic substitution manner often favoured by its media. But dubbing hockey violence or “toughness” an aesthetic, just as suggesting that war is aesthetic as the Futurists did, opens up deeper and less intellectually ghettoized conceptions of its dissemination than dubbing it an ideology might do. Ideology exists beyond conscious adoption by subjective agents; it “works” even if you don’t believe in it, in Slavoj Žižek’s conception at least. But an aesthetic is closer to a preference or a predilection. It is chosen, while ideology chooses us. However we choose to justify it, either by Etchingham’s appeal to common empathy or the Bruinist insistence that it correlates to success in the win column, understanding hockey violence as an aesthetic makes its continued prevalence in the sport that much more troubling and difficult.

Tempered Hopes, Deferred Glories: Your 2012-2013 Edmonton Oilers

April 29, 2013 1 comment

The Edmonton Oilers’ shortened NHL season ended on Saturday night with an impressive 7-2 win (albeit in an essentially meaningless game) over the Vancouver Canucks. Though some improvement in standings positioning was shown from previous seasons (24th is undeniably better than 29th or 30th), another finish out of playoff position (seven years running now, longest streak of spring futility in the league now that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the postseason) was undoubtedly disappointing for a fanbase led to expect a more competitive team.

There were consequences for management, as GM Steve Tambellini was let go before season’s end and replaced by former head coach Craig MacTavish. There was also a note of challenge from the usually sycophantic Edmonton sports media to the sheltered upper management, as President Kevin Lowe (often understood to be the true mover behind the annual inadequate roster) was grilled over the team’s lack of success in a surprising press conference announcing MacTavish’s promotion to general manager. Lowe’s thin-skinned reaction to criticism later required a contrite apology, but also demonstrated that his intolerance for dissenting views may be part of the problem for the organization.

MacT doesn’t get a banner backdrop? Setting him up to fail already!

Still, this was another season lost, and though the Oilers’ talented core is young and learning, valuable years are draining off of contracts and frustration is building. In particular, hyper-competitive franchise player Taylor Hall seemed irritated with the trend of losing. Considering his emergence as a legitimate play-driving superstar this season, Hall is one player the organization cannot afford to allow to become malcontent. The fans, dedicated though they are, are not blessed with infinite patience either. Not to put too fine a point on it, but winning needs to happen for this team soon.

In terms more aesthetic, there was plenty to latch onto in the Oilers orbit this year. On multiple occasions, the offensive miracles that their cadre of stellar young forwards were capable of came to the fore and lopsided scores (including a satisfying 8-2 lashing of the archrival Calgary Flames) were the result. Hall, as mentioned, learned to “push the river”, as blogger Lowetide puts it, Jordan Eberle came down to earth a bit from a positive outlier season but still showed sublime hands and accuracy, Magnus Paajarvi made major strides towards fulfilling his potential, and Justin Schultz’s blueline learning curve was neither as steep or as shallow as variously predicted.

But you really had to not be paying attention to the Oilers if the running highlight of the truncated season was not infectious rookie Nail Yakupov. While the sea change that I hinted he may portend at the start of the season has not arrived, Yakupov’s joyful celebrations and swaggering play (which improved as the season wore on and included 11 goals in the last month of the schedule) won over the mid-sized northern Canadian city that found itself doubting the kid earlier in the season. As he finished off a hat trick in the final win over the Canucks and moved into a likely Calder trophy finalist position, it was clear that Nail Yakupov, though only a part of the future of an Oilers team that remains tremendously promising but tantalizingly lacking in tangible glories, was much closer to being ready to snatch the spotlight. The bigger triumphs for this team were disappointingly deferred for another season, but the game-by-game delights increased, and the enthusiastic Yakupov was front-and-centre in providing them. Long may they continue and grow.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

March Madness: Corporate Spectacle and Controlled Cultural Insanity

March 19, 2013 1 comment

As we stumble past the ides of March for one more year, the calendar implies one major thing for sports fans of a certain stripe. The U.S. men’s college basketball championship tournament, popularly known as NCAA March Madness, is set to commence once more. Terms like “Cinderella” and “bracketology” and “Upset City” are being dusted off for another several thousand uses. The hoary old class-tinged dichotomies of power-conference giants versus plucky mid-majors have erected themselves once again (and are especially vehement this year, with once-underdogs Gonzaga receiving a #1 seed as one of the tournament top 4 squads). And on occasion, someone even has the temerity to suggest that the “amateur” college players should perhaps get a cut of the massive television and merchandising profits the NCAA earns with its championship tournament.

But let’s leave aside yearly roster specifics and financial grievances, bracket-filling-in and office-pooling, and get down to brass tacks about what makes March Madness quite possibly the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. The reason the tournament tends to lower nationwide productivity in American workplaces for its first four-day weekend (though perhaps not as much as usually stated) is that it is the most purely, viscerally entertaining showcase spectacle for not only the sport of basketball, but maybe for any American sport. This is not to say that March Madness is the world’s greatest sporting event, or the even the highest-level competition in its given sport (give the NBA Finals that much as least).

No, what makes it special is that, more than any other sporting extravaganza (even more than the Olympics or the World Cup), the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament demands and responds to frenzied crowd cries of “Mach schau, mach schau!” The first weekend, comprising the opening and second rounds of the tournament and eventually reducing 68 competing schools’ teams to only 16, is relentless and overwhelming in its roundball drama, at least by reputation and often in reality too. The games run all day and night with naught but a brief afternoon break for supper and evening news, a cascade of dunks and three-pointers and blocks and dribble penetration that leaves a dedicated watcher dizzy and exhausting.

Yes, indeed. Rise… to buy overpriced sneakers.

It’s very tough to be a dedicated watcher in the work-a-day world, but even a brief escape into the realm of buzzer-beating jump shots, court-rushing teammates, and dejected opponents is exhilarating. Much is made of this dense concentration of drama (and avoiding mention of frequent early-round blowouts makes it seem all the greater), of agony and ecstasy and athletic prowess that makes sport an occasionally transcendent but just as often deeply human saga of unpredictable narrative and impressive spectacle.

Never mind that the truly important games don’t even happen until the second and especially third tournament weekend, where the teams are whittled down to the elite programs of future NBA stars, starters, and role players contending for the title. Even if the early games feature basketball of a lower quality (a charge that many NBA hegemons level at all of college ball), the sheer profusion of displays of the game tramples such objections time and again. March Madness features so much basketball that it’s impossible not to come across fine examples of the craft, even in small sample sizes.

March Madness, we can say, contains multitudes. Indeed, it feels as if the tournament’s mostly-irresistible appeal represents and summarizes not only what is great about basketball. It collapses all of sport’s notable characteristics into a focused and unforgiving beast of a competition that captivates just as it embodies all that is questionable about big-time corporate-supported athletic competition. The corporate sponsors and profit-swallowing university bodies rely on free labour, of course; as in college football, the echoes of slavery in a business where white men make millions off of the uncompensated physical effort of young black men are substantial. But they also activate the fundamental tribal allegiances and simmering resentments that animate all sports fandom in a potent way, via scholastic alumni loyalties. Even if one does not have a rooting interest in an alma mater or a rival school, the tournament allows for new favourites to be chosen, as teams that make it further into the competition gain followers gradually, like a snowballing Twitter account.

Whether looked at cynically or with wonderment or with some balanced middle-ground approach, March Madness is clearly an impressive and populist spectacle that encompasses hints of cultural attitudes and practices in a sporting context. But its most miraculous achievement is how little these calculi matter once the ball is tipped and the Madness sets in. However widespread the tournament’s appeal is or isn’t, one thing about it is clear: its Madness is ours, encouraging, reflecting, and complicating our views of it as it spirals into its particular strain of controlled athletic insanity. That’s what makes the tournament great, and keeps us fascinated.

Categories: Culture, Sports

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #4 – Jordan Rides the Bus, Run Ricky Run & You Don’t Know Bo

March 3, 2013 1 comment

There is little question of how success is generally measured in sports. More than anything else it might be, high-level athletic activity is a business of repetitive accumulation: of goals, points, home runs, touchdowns, awards, championships, stacked on top of one another to make a pile higher than the next. There may be moments of style and wonder along the way, but these are merely the cherries on top of the heaping sundae of amalgamated success. Unlike so many others walks of life, in particular our personal or emotional purviews, the terms of success in professional sports are undeniable and quantifiable. There are clear-cut winners and losers, champions and also-rans, statistical milestones to reach and even firm expectations to be fulfilled (or not). Sporting heroes may sometimes amaze with their acts of physical prowess, but they establish a legacy with accolades and achievements.

But what happens when an athletic star refuses to conform to the expectations of sustained, determined accumulation of success? What if a sports hero of sublime talent decides that following this path laid out for them will not fulfill their hopes and dreams, will not bring them personal or spiritual completeness? Or what if their particular ability is so galactic and outsized that it threatens the ideal of a lengthy athletic career? Do we have room in our considerations of sporting achievement for these kinds of figures, and if we do not, can we make room?

Bo knows abs.

Three of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentaries focus on stars who raise these questions. All of them are African-American, and all of them took high-profile hiatuses from the game they excelled at smack dab in the middle of their prime, albeit for idiosyncratic reasons. In You Don’t Know Bo, director Michael Bonfiglio examines the briefly blazing phenom Bo Jackson, who was a standout athlete in both the NFL and Major League Baseball before a freak hip injury cut off his astronomical potential. Clips of his exploits (including football runs both bruising and lightning-quick, 500-foot home runs, and ridiculous outfield throws) are interspersed with reminiscences from Jackson himself and those who played with and coached him, as per the standard sports doc M.O.

But where You Don’t Know Bo breaks with the standard assessment of the career of a tremendous talent that is cut short by injury is with its inclusion of the profusion of barely-believable, half-true folk tales that swirl around Jackson. Bonfiglio seems most interested in these stories, enlisting storytellers like Chuck Klosterman and Michael Weinreb to dub Jackson a mythical superhero, a larger-than-life figure whose aura transcended even his not-inconsiderable media and advertising hype.

Anecdotal tall tales pepper the film’s opening, visualized in comic-book drawn animation, lending Jackson’s narrative the contours of heroic folklore: his college baseball coach claims to have seen Jackson leap over a Volkswagen, rumours abound that he once got in trouble for killing either the local minister’s pig or a pack of wild boars by throwing rocks at them, that he could leap a 40-foot ditch or hit a scoreboard with a football. Even his career-shortening injury itself, his incredible momentum while running disconnecting his entire hip bone, fits into this epic framework. The core suggestion of this examination of Bo Jackson’s legend is implicit: championships and scoring records are one thing, but an athlete that astounds us, that seems to be practically super-human, is something special.

Another athlete that astounded sports fans with his feats while also accumulating stats and championships was Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. Like Bo Jackson, Jordan dropped out of the sport he dominated at the peak of his powers. Unlike Jackson, Jordan did it of his own accord. Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides The Bus documents the Chicago Bulls superstar’s decision, after capturing his third consecutive NBA title and losing his father to a roadside murder, to leave basketball for baseball in 1993. Chasing a dream his deceased father had for his son to play baseball in the big leagues, Jordan was an underwhelming ball player for the Chicago White Sox’s AA club for one season before returning to the Bulls to grab three more championships.

Jordan Rides The Bus raises alternate, conspiratiorial motivations for not only his brief sport switch but also his father’s death (gambling, evidently, which the oft-lionized Jordan had an issue with, apparently). But it seems fairly clear that his stated explanation was genuine. Shelton’s film does a better job laying out the flow of events and the effect that a worldwide superstar’s presence had on a minor-league ball team in Birmingham, Alabama than it does interrogating Jordan’s mindset (the man himself does not appear except in archival footage, but does contribute voice-overs that sound like sports-cliche-ridden motivational speeches). But the simultaneous hubris and naivety of Jordan’s choice to swing a bat instead of dunking a ball is still striking. It must have come from a personal place, because otherwise, how does it make any sense at all?

In the company of practical living gods like Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, former NFL running back Ricky Williams cannot help but look distinctly human, for all of his obvious athletic gifts. Wonderfully, what Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni’s Run Ricky Run shows Williams to be is very distinctly human, with all of the oddness and inconsistencies that non-idealized humanity confers. Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the University of Texas and flegdling professional star for the Miami Dolphins, retired prematurely like Jordan, but to follow a distinctive and much more ambiguous search for meaning and fulfillment, away from sports altogether.

As well known for his substance-abuse policy violations due to marijuana use as for his on-field exploits, the Williams that emerges from Run Ricky Run is a man misunderstood and misrepresented by cynical sports media conceptions that labeled him “troubled”. Employing intimate and revealing footage shot by Pamphilon during Williams’ hiatus from the game, a picture emerges of an open-minded hippie seeker trapped in the herculean body of a sports star. Williams reads philosophy and new-age spiritual literature, practices yoga, massage, and holistic medicine, has relationships (and children) with multiple women, and gradually opens up about and comes to understand his parents’ divorce as well as his own report of sexual abuse by his father that led to it.

Although all of these films provide compelling alternate possibilities to the previously-explicated terms of sports success, Run Ricky Run is both the most surprising and the most fascinating of the three. The possibility that Ricky Williams’ peculiar narrative presents is that essentially harmless personal eccentricity can have a place alongside the wealth, fame, adulation, and victorious glory that are the expected rewards of professional sports stardom. Success need not entirely trump personality, even if that personality rejects the typical demands of that success.

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Sports, Television

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #3 – Catching Hell

February 13, 2013 2 comments

Catching Hell (Directed by Alex Gibney)

Acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney’s exploration of a memorable and troubling moment of recent baseball history is most notable not for the questions it answers but for the further questions it poses, namely about the terms and nature of sports fandom.

I’m sure it’s been said (though I can’t be sure of where) that the mass emotional investments in the fortunes of sports teams in modern capitalist society constitute nothing less than a substitution for the similarly intense association once felt for popular religion (and the two belief-system continue to unite in parts of America, in particular the Bible Belt’s mania for high school and college football). The sort of irrational tribal loyalties and inherited ideologies that characterize sports fandom as they once embodied institutionalized faith are nowhere more self-evident than in the orbit of clubs and franchises with a long history of futility, or at least of championshiplessness (new word!). And no franchise in North American sports has experienced a more infamously long run of futility than the Chicago Cubs.

Little know fact: Bartman was actually listening to “Stacy’s Mom” on repeat the entire game.

Catching Hell focuses on a recent incident in Cubs futility (which stretches back over a century to 1908, when they last won a World Series title) that left particularly visible scars. In Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Cubs had a lead over the Florida Marlins and were but a few outs from reaching the World Series (which would have been accomplishment enough for the club, not having been there since 1945). A fly ball into foul territory down the left field line seemed to portent one of those precious outs, and outfielder Moises Alou moved towards a key catch near the stands. As he leapt with his glove upstretched into the liminal no-man’s-land between field of play and fan seating, however, several fans in the crowd reached for the ball, too. One of them made contact, knocking the ball into the seats; Alou stomped in frustration at the missed catch. Boos began.

What happened subsequent to this – an eight-run inning from the Marlins and a victory for them in the NCLS and eventually in the World Series as well – had no direct line of logical causation to a simple missed catch on a foul ball. At the very least, the Cubs’ fall had no more direct line to that play than to a key fielding error or the poor relief pitching that also characterized the comeback rally. But once the Cubs had suffered another painful defeat, all the more excruciating for the cruel proximity to glory, it became clear to the Cub fan consciousness that this moment was where the psychic energy had shifted against the home team and another failure became inevitable.

The mob’s ire turned immediately, before the disastrous inning was even over, at the perceived culprit of their collective shame, or a simple scapegoat for it: Steve Bartman, a mild-mannered fan in a cap, turtleneck and headphones who was judged to have administered the fatal touch. Negative vibes and open threats were directed at Bartman as the Cubs fell further behind and in the days and weeks that followed the defeat, necessitating first his removal from the stadium by security and then his self-sequestering from the media and fan circus that subsequently ensued. Beyond that, the repeatedly televised image of Bartman after the play, alone, self-contained, and headphoned (he was listening to the radio call of the game while watching it) in the midst of an increasingly rabid crowd, when combined with his public silence, seemed to be a provocation to the popular anger. How could he not appear to be feeling the anguish that all Cubs fans were feeling, especially when he was the perceived cause of it? It was too much to bear (bear/Cubs pun not intended, though I now wish it was).

Gibney’s fascination with this incident stems not from a shared devotion to the Cubs, but from an analogous fan trauma. Like so many of America’s progressive artists, Gibney is a Bostonian, and therefore a loyal Red Sox fan whose youth was marked by several irruptions of the legendary Curse of the Bambino, the folkloric assurance of Red Sox futility in the championship arena supposedly tracing back to the club’s trading of baseball’s mythic Father Abraham, Babe Ruth, to the rival New York Yankees in 1920. As this so-called “Curse” was lifted after 86 years and several close calls by not only one but two recent Sox titles, Gibney can afford to be magnanimous in his sympathy for another fanbase’s collective anguish (although he holds them to account for the ugliness of their collective reaction, to be sure).

But he also related the Bartman incident to a similar endlessly-replayed moment in Red Sox lore: a ground ball trickling through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, which allowed the New York Mets to score the winning run and, like the Marlins, eventually the title. Gibney wonders at why Buckner’s specific error, rather than the chain of mistakes by other Sox players that led up to it, was the focus of wrath, a question that transfers easily to the Bartman situation, too. Buckner himself appears, also wondering at the persistence of the wrath and displaying obvious emotion in recalling it, even though his place in franchise history has been rehabilitated post-championships.

Relying on archival television footage, video from the Cubs game taken by superfan and filmmaker Matt Liston, and interviews with other witnesses, observers, and sports media types (though not with Bartman, who has meticulously defended his privacy since that fateful moment), Gibney gives the incident as detailed and nuanced a treatment as he gives his more serious documentary subjects. But Catching Hell also suggests that there is a certain seriousness to the mentality of the sports fan as well, or at least a core of zeal surrounded by a sleeve of easily-frayed resentments and dire voodoo superstitions. Rationally-minded and/or statistically-rigorous fans balk at the run-of-the-mill fan’s belief in the fairy tales of curses and momentum, but an unswerving belief in the irrational motivates sport fandom as surely as it does any other segment of American society.

As the Bartman incident demonstrates, and as Gibney comes right up to the verge of saying without quite saying it, the demands of irrational beliefs can often push American subcultures into the mentality of the mob (even to the bloodlust of the lynch mob; Bartman did receive death threats, and may not have been physically safe from reprisals had he remained at Wrigley until the game had ended). This unsettling conclusion is what sets Catching Hell (what an apt and chilling title that is for this story) apart as a sports film: it suggests that sports, or rather those who watch and love them, can be dangerous, and it examines a nucleus of illogical and potentially violent negativity that lurks at the heart of even America’s most idyllic and popularly romanticized pastime.

Nail Yakupov: Joyful Rebellion and the Repressed Hockey Culture

January 26, 2013 5 comments

The lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season is but a week in, and the Edmonton Oilers play only their fourth game of that season against their arch-rivals the Calgary Flames tonight. But already the Oilers’ roster of galactic young talents (which still has considerable holes, of course) is making hockey headlines. They overcame perennial Northwest Division winners the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout in the season opener and allowed 6 first-period goals to be run out of their own building to in their second game. This was followed by a home date this past Thursday against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings.

After a game full of head-scratching penalties and generally highly-questionable officiating, the Oilers had a late game-tying goal mysteriously waved off, and looked like they would fall to the champs by 1-0 scoreline. But then, with goaltender Devan Dubnyk on the bench for the extra attacker and in the midst of a furious assault for the equalizer, the Oilers’ latest high-touted #1 overall draft pick Nail Yakupov batted a rebound out of mid-air and past Conn Smythe-winning goalie Jonathan Quick to send the game to OT with 4.7 seconds remaining. A Sam Gagner tally in the extra frame would give the Oil the full share of points, but Yakupov’s dramatic goal (only the second of his NHL career) was the story, particularly due to how he celebrated it.

Soaking in the (quite literal) spotlight, the enthusiastic personality of Yakupov came out in a memorable, even iconic, way. The moment was something a step beyond being the key turning point in an early regular-season match-up against a league power for a youthful, raw club that hopes to turn a long run of futility into success for a hockey-mad community. Winning is great and all, but winning with style, winning and being cool, is a rarer thing, especially in the square world of pro hockey. Generally, as it is in most big-time sports, success in hockey is predicated on calculated, even ruthless, efficiency in the procurement of talent and application of strategic frameworks. The Detroit Red Wings have done a lot of winning over the last few decades, after all. So have the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers. But are any of those teams, in whatever meaning we choose for the word, “cool”?

This was cool. Nail Yakupov, with his wacky Twitter and his giddy approach to the game and, yes, his passionate goal celebrations, is cool. He’s now surrounded in Edmonton by more personally-staid young stars who can accomplish similarly remarkable things on the ice: Taylor Hall, a constant potential offensive explosion; Jordan Eberle, a skilled sniper with the dextrous hands of a sculptor; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a slight, consistently surprising wizard of a passer; Justin Schultz, who may not be Paul Coffey but may fill the role of blueline facilitator for this exhilirating forward core for some time to come. They may be young and a little brash (Yakupov’s slide was certainly that), but that’s a huge part of the appeal.

This is how Yakupov celebrated his first NHL goal. This kid is great.

The hope, for me, is that this group of players doesn’t only win, they win with a style and panache that the NHL game has not really seen in full measure since that legendary Gretzky-helmed Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Hockey at the top level has changed too much in the interim to allow for the same sort of offensive flair to dominate the league; defensive systems and technical goaltending has pushed the onus for success from the forward zones to behind the blueline, where the Oilers are still not reliable enough to compete for a title. Indeed, like Yakupov’s spur-of-the-moment ice-sliding freak-out, the Oilers are spontaneous, unplanned (I don’t give GM Steve Tambellini too much credit for “building” through losing), and maybe a bit too naively delighted with their small successes to achieve larger ones.

But there can be glory and immortality in not quite taking the top prize, but approaching it while playing with aesthetic appeal and entertaining swagger. I hold out some hope that this young Oilers core can do for pro hockey culture what the Fab Five did for the basketball world, introducing a new edge and a less repressed attitude to the game and the impressions that surround it. Yakupov’s attention-snatching celebration runs counter to the conservative, proper behaviour that dominates the hockey culture and turns individuals with non-deferential attitudes into pariahs or “locker-room cancers”. The fact that these figures tend to be skilled Europeans (especially Russians like Yakupov or Alexander Ovechkin) or non-white North Americans (like goalie Ray Emery or current Montreal Canadiens hold-out P.K. Subban, who a TSN analyst once described, with a telling Freudian slip, as not playing or acting “the white way”) speaks also to a xenophobic (white supremacist, even) culture of heteronormativity in hockey culture that mistrusts difference and works with determination to marginalize and eradicate any hint of it.

The fact that something as seemingly innocuous as a rookie enthusiastically celebrating an important goal early in his pro career can challenge the established hockey order speaks to its rigidity. Greg Wyshynski’s piece on Yakupov’s celebration at Puck Daddy is one of the better reaction pieces I’ve come across, fully appreciating the NHL’s structure of “staid decorum” and holding up the spontaneous act as a joyful rebellion against the uptight dominant culture of the game (he also includes some ignorant jibes at soccer’s superior flair, which fails to acknowledge that sport’s theatrical celebrations as expressions of the released mass tension that such a low-scoring game encourages).

And yet Wyshynski’s closing sentence, which darkly hints at what can only be considered gangland-style violent retribution for Yakupov’s celebration when the Kings next meet the Oilers, demonstrates that the culture has a long way to go before style, flair, and “cool” are properly embraced as necessary components of hockey’s mass appeal rather than aberrations in behaviour that compel punishment. If moments like the one Nail Yakupov provided the other night can open wider cracks in this stiff facade, they might prove even more memorable, in the long run.