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How to fix fractured politics? For starters, watch hockey

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Two bitter rivals, a clash of campaign styles, teams that loathe each other, allegations of dirty tricks, disputes about alternative facts. No, I’m not talking about the presidential election of 2016, but the NHL playoffs of 2017.

The Hockey-Politics Analogy

The replay is hard to watch. In a playoff hockey game last Monday, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby fell awkwardly and was smashed in the head by Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. Crosby’s neck snapped sideways against his shoulder, and he slumped to the ice. 

I have viewed the video dozens of times, from separate angles and in slow motion. My initial interest, as with other hockey fans, was in deciding for myself what happened.

Was the Crosby hit “dirty” or a freak accident in a fast and violent game? Was the referee’s decision, to remove Niskanen from the game, fair? If the hit was an attempt to injure Crosby, would I have some ethical responsibility to rethink support for the Capitals?

As the clip circulated and message boards filled with angry commenters, it was clear that interpretations of morality were driven primarily by team loyalty. The analogy with current American politics was inescapable — all hockey fandom, like politics, is local. 

Hockey and Political Affiliations are Personality-driven

Hockey is beautiful and brutal. The simmering rivalry between Crosby and Capitals Star Alexander Ovechkin is often portrayed as one between two archetypes. While Crosby can play tenacious defense, his reputation is as a spellbinding puck handler and playmaker. While Ovechkin is capable of great finesse, he is also large, rugged and likes to hit people.      

It was inevitable that internet debate devolved to insults and allegations between their fans. Penguins supporters accused Ovechkin of slashing Crosby with his stick and tripping up his foot just before the collision with Niskanen. They cited previous incidents when Ovechkin behaved dangerously. Capitals fans posted videos of Crosby slashing other players when referees were looking elsewhere. It was a National Hockey League (NHL) version of “the politics of personal destruction.”       

Certainty Comes from Association, Not Facts 

I am still unsure how to apportion blame. Ovechkin’s priority is to interfere with Crosby’s shot, but he does hit Crosby with his stick and initiates skate to skate contact that starts Crosby’s pin-wheeling. Crosby initiates contact with Niskanen, but Niskanen raises his hands and stick right before they collide and hits the falling Crosby in the face.    

Despite no evidence regarding motive and just 1.5 seconds of non-definitive video, certainty reigned on the internet. Conspiracy-minded Penguins fans alleged a premeditated attempt to injure. Capitals fans derided the notion that such an incident could be scripted. A few independent-minded souls averred the incident seemed unclear but were ignored or hooted down.  

The tawdry 2016 presidential campaign featured similar levels of certainty. More disconcerting than the spin from professional politicos was that many voters (on both sides of the aisle) lacked the ability to tell truth from fiction, or to penalize candidates who lied repeatedly and without shame.  

Every Fan Gets a Narrative of Suffering 

Washington and Pittsburgh have contrasting playoff histories. The defending champion Penguins play “big” and have come from behind to defeat the Capitals in eight of their nine playoff series. The Caps’ playoff futility is a source of despair. But for hockey fans, like political partisans, every team can provide a sense of suffering. Pittsburgh absorbed a ferocious number of injuries during the year, including to All-Star Kris Latang. 

Republicans control all three branches of government and most state houses, yet the whiny rhetoric from the White House and right-wing media make it seem it is the GOP’s Dien Bien Phu. Democrats have a lot to complain about, from Republican gerrymandering to Supreme Court packing, but at their most melodramatic, they come off as a collection of grievances that just happen to caucus together. 

Anger and Retribution 

Sports page comments sections don’t normally overflow with calm-minded advocates of distributive, procedural or restorative justice, admittedly, but the fixation by many Penguins fans on violent retribution coalesced awfully quickly. 

The extremes of American politics historically have provided a haven and justification for violence, but rage at the Obama and Trump presidencies seems to have normalized views that would have been shocking in earlier eras. It is an indictment of our national mood that such extreme views are now expressed by people who think of themselves as moderates.   

Accountability and Responsibility

Capitals coach Barry Trotz responded to a reporter’s aggressive questioning by recalling a previous “predatory” hit by a Penguins player. Trotz could have answered the question, accepted some Capitals’ responsibility for a tragic incident, but chose not to.

American politicians seem to feel little compulsion to answer an accusation before making a counter-allegation (to suggest equivalence or simply distract). President Trump employs the rhetorical trick constantly, but Hillary Clinton and other Democrats have also indulged. It suggests confidence there is no enforcement mechanism to keep them on-topic. 

Impartial Institutions and Respected Experts

In one respect at least, the NHL is a clear winner over American politics — in adjudicating disputes. While every hockey fan yells at referees, few believe the officiating system itself is operating in bad faith. While everyone has a least-favorite broadcaster, there is general respect for knowledgeable media analysts. While booing sports commissioners is enshrined in the Bill of Rights (well, maybe not in those exact words), fans don’t believe NHL games or disciplinary actions are rigged. 

Hockey has what American politics used to have — respected authorities, professionalized investigation and adjudication mechanisms and a level of popular confidence. Maybe Republicans and Democrats should start attending games together. The rest of the Caps-Pens series will be amazing. 


Joseph Cassidy is a fellow in the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program at the Wilson Center.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Alexander Ovechkin Hillary Clinton Matt Niskanen National Hockey League Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby Washington Capitals

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