The Ottawa Sun is one week removed from a sports columnist using his penis as a framing device for a story about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke, so it was going to be a challenge to reach new levels of tasteless provocation.
Challenge accepted and met on Friday morning, as the Ottawa Sun put a blood-soaked Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens on its cover to hype the Ottawa Senators’ Game 1 win over the Habs:
Eller suffered a broken nose and other injuries on a hit by Eric Gryba of the Sens in Thursday night’s game. It was a horrific scene, as blood streamed from his face onto the ice as he was momentarily knocked out.
Which, of course, papers do every single day. At least the ones in tabloid form.
It’s a shocking image, and its placement is all the more shocking when you consider the ultimate legality of Gryba’s hit had yet to be determined by the NHL – he was given a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for it. The majority of fans and pundits believed the hit was legal, and that Eller's injury was caused in a freakish fall to the ice.
Yet the Sun's cover is being trashed around North America. Even if, in the end, it's just a hyperbolic extension of the sports media culture we’ve all created.
Hockey’s a brutal, brutal game. As much as we tell ourselves we don’t watch it for moments in which a player’s blood is pouring on the ice, we do. We don’t actively cheer for it, in the same way I’d hope a NASCAR fan doesn’t cheer for crashes. But its potential for happened is part of the reason we watch.
We cheer injurious plays all the time, in the moment: a huge hit, a massive collision, a knockout punch in a fight (or a fight itself, which is a serious of mutually accepted injuries). It’s only in the aftermath we recoil and offer concern for the well being for the athlete. Our kinetic, Pavlovian response to the act is balanced by our dialing back to feeling something more human than puckhead -- "concern."
Because of that response, teams put hits that lead to concussions in highlight reels. Bloody faces of players represent the warrior aesthetic in hockey. Quick, how many injuries do you count in this Hockey Night in Canada montage for the 2013 playoffs? You know, the one that hockey fans said brought them tears of joy upon viewing it yesterday?
Seeing Scott Stevens drop Slava Kozlov with a head-shot in that video gave me an adrenaline rush. But they didn't have time to show him dealing with a concussion afterwards. You can only license so much time from The Who for "Baba O'Reilly" I guess.
So you can call the Ottawa Sun classless or tasteless or disgusting or sensationalist and that’s fine, because this Lars Eller cover is all of that. It’s a John Waters film – offensive by design, extreme to the point of parody. It mines the barbarous affinity hockey fans have for the violent aspects of our game and turns it into a grotesque movie poster for a quarterfinal series.
It’s amazing, in a sport of abject violence, how blood and stretchers turn even the most ardent glass-pounding hockey fan into a mournful creature of empathy. We take our lead from the NHL on that, actually: For years, the presence of either meant this was something beyond the expectations for violence in our game. That a player’s hit would receive supplemental discipline if a stretcher came out. Hell, what’s the threshold for a double-minor of high-sticking?
Blood is part of the game. It soaks the ice in our most memorable and vicious moments. That the Ottawa Sun would use it to sell papers is, frankly, very Ottawa Sun of them. But are we simply going to ignore that the violent aspects of the game aren’t one of the NHL’s main selling points? It’s the Sun simply hitching itself to the same bloody wagon?
I'm no puritan. I'm attracted to violence in the game, and I accept it. I never want to see an injury like Eller's but I'm also not going to object if a media entity wants to sensationalize it, because it's an inescapable part of the NHL.
To be honest, the most deplorable thing I saw in the wake of the Eller hit wasn’t on the cover of the Ottawa Sun. It was on NHL.com last night.
Their video of the Eller incident was scrubbed of any images of blood. Not a drop. You wouldn’t have even known why the hit was so controversial or the scene was so grotesque. The NHL literally washed the blood from its hands.
But that’s not the deplorable part.
The 30-second advertisement before the video was.
Because in the end, that’s what sells hockey, and what hockey sells, whether it’s the Ottawa Sun or the League itself.