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Grace Under Fire: The State of Our Sweet and Savage Game

by Lawrence Scanlan

In Grace Under Fire, journalist and hockey lover Lawrence Scanlan attempts to reconcile the beauty and speed of hockey with its often casual – and occasionally brutal – violence. By poring over articles, books, studies, and video footage, keeping a year-long hockey diary, and conducting dozens of interviews, Scanlan, like many other Canadians before him, tries to shed light on how such a graceful sport can still condone bare-knuckled fighting.

Assaults and beatings are a common thread throughout the history of the game, yet rarely is justice meted out in court, leading many hockey players and fans to believe that the game is somehow exempt from the law. Scanlan offers many explanations for the high levels of violence in our national game: bigger and faster players on an ice surface that has remained the same size; the entertainment value of violence in an increasingly competitive sports market; and an atavistic reaction against the gentility of our British forebears and their love of cricket.

Scanlan comes at the subject of violence in hockey largely as a pacifist and intellectual, but as a 53-year-old player in an oldtimer’s league and the father of a hockey-playing son, he understands the primacy of winning and the desire for immediate payback when one is hit, slashed, elbowed, or otherwise wronged on the ice.

But Grace Under Fire too often reads like an earnest state-of-the-hockey-union address that is padded with too many reflections on Scanlan’s son’s team. And while discussing such things as players’ superstitions and the “mullet” hockey haircut make for interesting reading, they distract from the book’s focus. Nevertheless, the book serves as a useful survey course on the hockey landscape circa 2002.

Scanlan offers several ideas for restoring the game – bigger rinks, fighting bans, full-time four-on-four play. These are good disdiscussion points, but they aren’t new, and in the hockey-as-a-business context, might not be feasible either.