A damaging hockey fight shows why insider journalists need an outsider’s perspective

May 2, 2019
Carolina Hurricanes right wing Andrei Svechnikov lays on the ice after a fight with Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin during an April 15 playoff game. Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via AP Images

During an April 15 Stanley Cup playoff game, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin squared off against Carolina Hurricanes rookie Andrei Svechnikov. The fight took seconds. Ovechkin grabbed the rookie’s jersey before Svechnikov could shake his gloves loose. Svechnikov didn’t grip Ovechkin’s jersey at the shoulder to disrupt the veteran’s punches; his own had to loop around Ovechkin’s arm. Ovechkin landed hard, clean rights, and then rode the rookie’s limp body to the ice, where the back of the Svechnikov’s head bounced. “You’ve got to get help!” NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire exclaimed during the broadcast. “Get the trainer out there. Hurry up.” Ovechkin coasted to the penalty box and settled in. Svechnikov struggled to his knees.

Carolina ultimately sent Svechnikov to the hospital and put him under the National Hockey League’s concussion protocol. Svechnikov missed the next two weeks of hockey.

NBC Sports, through their Capitals-specific Twitter account, tweeted a video of the fight with the caption: “Rookie mistake.” That was generally the theme of coverage. SportsCenter tweeted the video with, “Pro tip: Don’t throw hands with Alex Ovechkin [astonished emoji]”. A Yahoo! Sports reporter opened, “Life is full of decisions that we regret. I, for one, regret going to prom with my aunt while in high school. If your name is Andrei Svechnikov, you probably regret dropping the gloves with Alex Ovechkin.” Commentators framed the fight as an addition to Ovechkin’s legend, or as a humbling of the rookie. One pundit compared the two Russians by boxing weight class. Others set up debates about the merits of fighting, which reduced the event to terrain for another on-air altercation, this time between men in suits at desks.

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The @NBCSCapitals account video attracted millions of views. Pieces of the footage accompanied reporting on reactions from coaches, other hockey commentators, and an article titled, “Don’t blame Alex Ovechkin for the injury to Andrei Svechnikov, blame fighting in the NHL.” Unsurprisingly, one article cited Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry, a fervent advocate for the virtues of rough hockey. “You play with the bull, you get the horn,” Cherry explained.

Such coverage contrasted with the sobering concern of actual hockey players. Hurricanes coach and former captain Rod Brind’Amour said after the game that he felt “sick to my stomach.” Ovechkin, too, expressed concern for Svechnikov. “I hope he’s OK,” he told reporters. “You don’t want to see a guy get hurt.” Ovechkin looked upset, noted former NHL veteran Anson Carter, an analyst for NBC. While Ovechkin must have anticipated the possibility, perhaps he had not envisioned this particular outcome.“I kept thinking about him the whole game,” Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan. “I hated seeing that. I just feel so bad for him. The game doesn’t really matter when something like that happens.”

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Audiences count on journalists to provide explanations with an insider’s context—for obscure details of health-care bills, for the historical forces at play on a Middle Eastern coup, and, yes, for the significance of a hockey fight. But journalists must also provide an outsider’s perspective, and see an event for what it is, apart from the culture that normalizes it. From an insider’s perspective, the fight was a strategic choice. It also seriously hurt a young man, forced his coach to decide when to risk returning him to danger, and—because concussion effects are cumulative—weakened his resistance to future brain injury.

A lot of the Ovechkin-Svechnikov coverage was the journalistic equivalent of teenagers at a parking lot fight, yelling “Ooh!” into cupped hands with the false astonishment of hype-men. Here, the hype-man approach got results. A hockey fight is the ideal length for a viral YouTube clip, and fits handily among an existing genre for recommendation. (NBC’s video has so far attracted 3.74 million views.) But if attention was all that mattered to journalists, we’d just cover murders, bum fights, and nipple slips. Metrics make tabloids of us all.

When reached for comment, NBC representatives said the Svechnikov fight had an important impact on the game, and as journalists they have a responsibility to document and analyze fights. It should be noted that in the earlier days of the NHL, cameras often cut away during fights, as they do on NFL broadcasts. An NBC representative also cited articles about its analyst Mike Milbury, who in 2014 called for an end to fights in the NHL.

Reporting on an athlete’s health can be difficult. Teams maintain secrecy about the severity of injuries. Players hate to admit weakness. And the most severe consequences of an injury don’t manifest for decades. Fight footage is immediate, while footage of early-onset Alzheimer’s is trickier to obtain.

The NHL players showing concern about this fight have all witnessed careers cut short because of concussions. They remember Sidney Crosby’s lost year and Eric Lindros’s early retirement, as well as Steve Montador and Derek Boogaard’s addictions. They’ve probably seen someone’s personality change as they struggle to rebuild their brain. If pundits want to argue that fighting is an important part of hockey culture, they still need to honestly represent the kind of sacrifice such a culture requires.

Some journalists have shown they are up to the task. In 2011, The New York Times ran a three-part series on Derek Boogaard, a legendary enforcer who died at age 28 of a painkiller overdose, and whose autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Jake Bogoch attended a short-lived fight camp to illuminate that part of hockey culture for Deadspin. And The Players’ Tribune has done excellent work chronicling the experiences of athletes suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Former New Jersey Devil Bryce Salvador kept playing after a concussion. He writes:

At home with my family, I was becoming someone they didn’t know. My boys were four- and one-years-old. Any little thing they did, I would lose my temper. Noise bothered me. Light bothered me. I couldn’t go out to dinner. I couldn’t do anything social. I couldn’t train. I couldn’t even drive with my wife and kids to a movie at night without getting sick.

As long as fighting has a role in hockey, participants—including fans—deserve to know what they’re getting into. Especially considering the gravity of concussions, being cavalier about a fight ignores the full story. Journalists who fail to talk about what players risk when they choose to fight fail to serve the players, their readers, and the sport itself. And as journalists increasingly treat politics like sports, they, too, should remember that honest coverage of a contest doesn’t just report what competitors got away with. It covers the consequences on human lives.

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Christopher Benz writes.