Vigilante Justice

We witnessed again, on December 7th , an example of NHL style vigilante justice, meted out by Boston tough guy Shawn Thornton in response to a borderline body check to his teammate.  In the first period of the game between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, Shawn Thornton attacked Brooks Orpik from behind, knocking him to the ice. With Orpik in this vulnerable and defenceless position, Thornton then proceeded to punch him in the head. Orpick was taken from the ice on a stretcher and transported to the closest hospital.

As it turns out, this was a nationally televised Hockey Night in Canada game and we therefore had the benefit, at the first intermission, of Don Cherry's impassioned insights. Only Don Cherry could watch such a scenario unfold and claim that Shawn Thornton was the victim in this situation.

Vigilante justice often occurs in groups or communities where the residents don't feel the laws and those who enforce them are adequate. A small group of self-appointed enforcers take the law into their own hands and serve up what they consider to be appropriate justice. This was, of course, very prevalent in the 1800s when the West was being settled and law and order was hard to establish.

Society has come a long way since the days of cowboys, outlaws and the Wild West. Civilized societies now live by what we refer to as the rule of law. The rules and laws that govern society today are established democratically and those who act outside of the rule of law are considered criminals and are punished accordingly. Sadly, there are still individuals and groups in society and certain cultures where the rule of law is not respected. When these individuals take the law into their own hands, they are committing criminal offences and the rule of law is applied against them.

How is it that the NHL and its players are able to behave with impunity in ways that fall outside of the rule of law? Should society step in through the criminal justice system and police on-ice behaviour if the NHL is unable to police this behaviour itself?

As the NHL considers these questions, it might ask itself the following question: “Why do players in the NHL feel they must resort to vigilante justice?” The answer is twofold. One, the NHL's rules governing gratuitous violence, including head shots and fighting, are way too lenient – so lenient they in fact encourage the behaviour they are intended to curb. (The 15-game suspension handed down by the league to Mr. Thornton is similar to past suspensions of other players for similar offences – they haven’t curbed the behaviour.) And two, the rules that exist, as weak and ineffective as they are, are unevenly applied. This uneven application of the weak rules creates confusion and frustration. When you put these two conditions together you get vigilante justice. You encourage a culture to take things into its own hands. And in the NHL, this kind of behaviour is all too often glamourized and rewarded.

The consequences of this approach to self-rule in the NHL are the mounting number of casualties we see in the game of hockey today (from Steve Moore to Sidney Crosby to Brooks Orpik). The owners of the NHL must wake up and take clear and definitive action now before more harm is caused to their players  to their league and to the children who imitate their NHL heroes!