The violence of Vinnie Hughes

On Saturday, on Melbourne’s notoriously violent King Street, a man took umbrage at what he perceived as rough treatment of one of his mates by a Perth tourist. Not a small guy, he determinedly shook off the restraining hands of three police officers, he was so intent on fighting the tourist. Eventually the police threw up their hands and the two went toe-to-toe, the vicious brawl ending with police dragging the man off the tourist who was now lying on the ground, hands attempting to cover his face as unanswered punches found their mark.

Blood splattered the ground as the man was led away, waving to the crowd who had cheered while witnessing the savage beating.

Pretty horrible scenario, huh? But as anybody who was at the Melbourne Ice-Perth Thunder game at the Icehouse on Saturday evening knows, this didn’t happen on King Street. It happened on skates during that game, with Melbourne captain Vinnie Hughes the aggressor who beat the crap out of Perth player Sam Wilson after Wilson had taken out the Ice goalie, Stu Denman.

The ice where Hughes v Wilson happened.

Denman had ventured way out from goal when hit, which leads to questions about whether he was fair game or not, so far from the blue crease. Regardless, it was a hard hit which led to a predictable push and shove between the teams before Hughes made a late decision to “make a statement”, pushing all referees aside until he could get to Wilson and go toe-to-toe.

He was thrown out of the game and Wilson won’t look pretty today.

The whole thing almost made me late for a musical I had tickets for in Elwood – a local production of ‘Avenue Q‘, an adult comedy musical featuring Sesame Street-like puppets and human actors.

Which is where it all gets bizarre, huh? There I was, behind the goals at the South Pole end of the Henke Rink, hollering and hooting and full of blood lust as Hughes beat the shit out of a hockey player metres away. I’d bought a friend along to her first hockey game and my 16-year-old son, Macklin, was there with a friend as well. Mack texted me in the long delay after the fight (as the rattled referees tried to work out how many Melbourne Ice stars they could physically fit in the penalty box for having not left the ice as instructed) to say: “That was awesome”.

Ever the loyal blogger, my main concern at the time was whether my Nikon, battery dying, had managed to get the shots of the blood splattering the ice and then being scooped up by some emo attendant. (It did: as per this post)

It was only the next day, waiting for the ball to come to my wing, in pouring rain, during The Bang footy at Albert Park, that I began to feel uneasy. And then later, at a Mother’s Day pub lunch with my intelligent, caring, gentle ex-wife, where I looked her in the eye and it occurred to me that it was difficult to justify having introduced our two teenage sons to such a violent scene the day before.

I’ve previously written about my uneasy attraction to violence, in boxing and hockey. This Hughes fight felt really savage. On Facebook afterwards, the Rookies were in full flight, crowing about flying the flag for teammates and whether it’s ever okay to hit a goalie, about Vinnie being a legend and a great captain. I posted my blood pics and everybody hit the “like” button, me included. We’re all new to the sport and are like adolescents, flexing our tough-guy hockey muscles that we secretly know won’t actually be tested in the non-fighting leagues we are working up to playing.

Even that is so different to The Bang, which is football unashamedly based around pure skill without bullshit testosterone. I love that we bangers are all too old for that crap. On Sunday, I watched my Bang teammates bring the Sherrin around the flank in the rain, devoted only to clean skills in the wet. It’s well understood that if you feel like a bit of body-on-body and two of you agree, then go for it and we’ll all laugh. I had an exchange like that with a mate, Phil, on Sunday, both of us playfully jostling as the Sherrin approached, then chasing the ball on the deck, with Phil gracefully conceding, stepping back when my head was right there, for his hip or leg to collect had he chosen.

It’s not always like that. One ex-rugby player, Karl, hit me in the jaw with the hardest shots to the head I’ve had in years when I was stupid enough to try and tackle him a year or so ago. But I didn’t complain. I’d bought into the physicality that day.

And then there’s boxing. Tonight I’ll tape my hands and don boxing gloves, to throw an hour’s worth of hopefully hard and fast punches at training partners and heavy bags.

But I understand there are clear boundaries. It’s all pretend violence; controlled aggression with no intent to hurt (unless you’re Karl who can get a little carried away).

Cleaning up after the fight on Saturday.

A truly premeditated hockey fight is something else; planned, vicious punches with the intent to cause harm. Vinnie Hughes went after Wilson with true hatred in his eyes and didn’t stop until the Thunder guy’s face was leaking blood onto the ice in a big way, and the referees managed to tangle his arms to stop more punches.

UPDATE (Tuesday, May 15, 11.30 am): Vinnie Hughes offers formal apology.

With so much debate in the NHL right now about brain damage from hockey, and the after-effects of the game’s traditional enforcers, or “goons”, who are a dying breed, it was an unusual sight, even if Big Cat Place, who goes to most Ice games, shrugged that it was the third or fourth such fight he’s seen.

(And again, as a father, should I be concerned that he was so casual about it? At 19 years old, so unconcerned that he had just watched one guy belt the crap out of another, while officials stood by, in the name of sport? In fact, smiling and loving it.)

I understand that violence is part of hockey, like AFL and other contact sports. I’ve had fights on the footy field in my youth, and even towards the end of my youth. The only time I genuinely, truly saw red and instigated a fight was, of all things, in a Herald newspaper v The Age newspaper “social match” at the Punt Road Oval (my one game ever on the holy home grass of my beloved Tigers).

An Age photographer known to have serious anger management issues dived with both knees into the lower back of a Herald player who had lost his footing and was lying on his stomach, but still reaching for the ball in a pack. It was a cowardly act to an unprotected player that was incredibly dangerous and bad form at any level of footy. But in a fucking social match? Stripling that I was back then, nobody was more surprised than me when I found myself face-to-face with the photographer hard man, his guernsey bunched in my fists and the momentum of righteous anger carrying me through the moment.

Looking back, I have no problem with that encounter. Somebody had to make a point that his act was low and had no place in a social match. I’d like to think more than any physical damage I may have caused, what I said to him about his character and behaviour (and maybe his mother, his penis size and anything hopefully more creative I came up with in that moment) humiliated him in front of a bunch of workmates and journalistic colleagues. And yes, it all occurred right on the wing, in front of the crowd – oops.

Perhaps that’s how Vinnie Hughes feels today? Righteous in that he protected his goalie as a captain should in the accepted violent parameters of hockey culture?

Whenever I tell people outside the sport that I’m a hockey player, their almost-universal reaction is to say: isn’t that an ultra-violent slugfest? I’ve always enjoyed the faux hard-man reputation this reaction offers me.

Of course, at my development league level – and any level I’m ever likely to play – it isn’t a thug sport at all. Even at the Melbourne Ice level, fights are banned and I’m expecting Hughes will miss a few matches as a result of his exploits.

But occasionally, like Saturday, you’re reminded of the savagery that is in the DNA of hockey over the past century or so, and that such primitive violence is not as far below the surface as modern officialdom would like to think. In the NHL, there remain times where to not fight would be regarded as wrong. (Such as Bertuzzi shaping up to Weber in the game after Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the boards during the recent play-offs – I applauded Bert for that.)

Like boxing, it’s a sport where people can be hurt, and by deliberate, expertly-delivered punches.

And I stand and cheer. Against every value I hold in the world outside that bubble.

I’m still not sure what that means. I guess the obvious answer is to skate hard on Wednesday night and play the puck, not the man. And probably be laughed at by my Rookies peer group for genuinely hoping Sam Wilson is okay.

As another violent man, Ned Kelly, once said: “Such is life”.


Comments

  1. Brendan says:

    I neither condone the fight nor accept the resons for it. Why is the goalie off limits, but every other player is fair game? And for a captain to stoop so low (and then play to the croud after) like it’s WWF is not the game I play. You can get caught up in the heat of the moment, but the point was made long before the last punch was thrown.

  2. Fantastic piece, Nick.

    I was genuinely distressed by Wilson’s hit on Denman. I believe it deserved a far harsher penalty than the two minute interference it got. That being said, if someone on the ice had just thrown down gloves with Wilson then and there and thrown a few punches, I would have been OK with it. But for Hughes to allegedly leave the bench and MANHANDLE OFICIALS and pursue and pursue and pursue Wilson? I am not ok with that.

    The thing I had the biggest problem with is that–look, in the NHL, there is a code. The code wasn’t kept. Wilson seemed unwilling to fight and Hughes just laid into him. Given Lovering’s recent statement about five offenses and automatic suspension for some of them, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see Hughes miss the rest of this season, or around five games and stripped of his Captain’s rank.

    I hope that Wilson’s OK. But I also hope that he’s learned not to run Goalies.

    • Hiya Jane. I think you’ve finally hit on what disconcerted me about the whole thing (so thank you). It was the fact that Wilson didn’t want to fight and was basically beaten up against his will. THAT’s the ingredient I hadn’t been able to put my finger on. I’ve seen that in the NHL, when somebody has hit somebody with a cheap shot, been challenged to fight and refused to… All sorts of judgements are made but if they don’t want to go, they don’t go.
      Wilson didn’t get that opportunity. he was basically attacked, regardless.

  3. Patrick says:

    Like hell. Wilson yapped at Vinnie the whole time, guaranteeing a confrontation. He disrespected the house in a major way during the pre-game ceremony. The goaltender is protected under IIHF rules – go and read them for yourself instead of carrying on like a bunch of ignorant tards. I thought the article in general came off as far too self-aware, and at times laughably naiive. Wilson was ordered to skate away from Vinnie and refused on a number of occasions. The time Vinnie got to him was Wilson skated to the wall so that he had enough leverage to stop the linesman moving him away. He didn’t shy away from a confrontation, and he got one.

    • Patrick, saying my blog is far too self aware and laughably naive isn’t news.
      I take your points on Wilson potentially being up for the fight … didn’t look like it from where I was but I hope you’re right.
      Interesting that Vinnie has apologised if it was all totally within the rules …

      • Patrick says:

        I question the paradox of writing what you did if you were going to bootnote it with a statement asserting your overall enjoyment of it. Of course you would expect Vinnie to issue an apology – have a look last year, there was not a single fight at a Melbourne Ice home game. It’s not often that the Melbourne Ice crowd sees a fight, so it’s hardly like this type of behavior is common. You would therefore expect a decent leader to apologize to those who potentially may have been upset or offended. Sadly, they’re probably the same crowd that were cheering with vigour on Saturday night, and and are today writing blogs about the violence of it all and hoping that Wilson is okay. I can tell you for sure that after the game there was no visible angst between Wilson and Hughes, and that the Perth and Melbourne players also interacted well afterward.

  4. Well, that’s good to hear, Patrick. I’m glad the Ice and Thunder, including Hughes and Wilson, are all mates again. Or at least, have professional respect, which is more likely.
    I think you’ve missed the point of my blog. Not just this entry, but generally – especially the ones about violence. The blog is not Nicko’s Bumper Hokey News. It’s not even vaguely an attempt to cover the AIHL. I covered sport as a reporter for the best part of 20 years for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and online. I’ve been there and done that. Instead, this blog is for me to explore how I feel about these things. I actually couldn’t give a flying fuck if the only people who read it are me and my labradoodle, Fly, who admittedly struggles with the longer words. I started the blog as a way to chart my attempt to learn to play hockey, from literally having never stood on skates last January to now playing development league and hopefully entering summer comp by the end of this year.
    So yes, this blog is self-indulgent. Shamelessly so. It’s a glorified diary so I can read back to last March where pivots and backward skating were total mysteries to me, and then to read recent posts where transitions and backward skating are total mysteries to me. To see how far I’ve come.
    In that framework of exploration, the violence within hockey is a fascinating and disturbing topic, especially my internal battle of liking it and being horrified by it – which goes back to covering Jeff Fenech fights and being splattered with blood while reporting from the ropes, and following the after-effects of the sport to guys like Lester Ellis.
    The fact is there were over 1000 people there on Saturday and there was blood lust, and on facebook after, and yet I have nothing but respect for how intelligent, well educated, mostly middle-class (buying gear etc is expensive) and decent are the vast majority of the members of the hockey community that I know. Including several Ice players who I would regard myself as good friends with. This is why I find the joy of violence within the game challenging – and yes, I have cheered fights, for sure. As a Red Wing fan, I loved Bertuzzi giving it to Weber in the play-offs, to quote a recent example.
    I don’t know you at all, but I’m betting you would shake your head if you saw the Hughes-Wilson fight in a night club. In hockey, because of the “don’t touch the goalie” rule, you’re fine with it. Shrug … fine. Whatever.
    But that line between off-rink reality and on-rink reality is interesting, no?
    The only line of yours I would probably dispute is calling me “naive”. I’ve seen a lot of violence, from sport to actual murder scenes, and have seen more life than many. I’m not remotely naive. Which is why I’m prepared to raise a public eyebrow at the Ice crowd and Vinnie going all Lord of the Flies on a Saturday afternoon. Because a goalie was way, way, way too far out of his crease and a Perth player thought he’d turn that into something.
    Bottom line, I feel a need to warn you, my blog will remain self-indulgent and gratuitous. (Wait until the next entry – it’s number 100. I’m having a photo taken of me nude, covered in balloons)
    You don’t have to read it, but I also welcome the interaction. Maybe we can learn from each other.

    • Benny King says:

      Nicko, Love your work….. even post blog.

    • Patrick says:

      Nick, I am well aware of the purpose of a blog, what I’m more interested in is the parallels you’re trying to draw with situations far removed, such as the one you’ve just mentioned. If I saw Hughes and Wilson going at each other in a nightclub, I would certainly keep my distance. This did not happen in a nightclub – it happened on a hockey rink; an arena where each player stepping onto the ice knows this can and does happen. If one bloke trips another on the ice causing them to fall over, how would I feel about that at a nightclub? The answer, of course, is that it’s a stupid comparison to make.

      The fights are most certainly a part of hockey, and the players know that. The popular NHL video game series has certainly not been shy of this aspect of the game. If a fight breaks out on a football field, should I be shocked by it? Not entirely, but I’d concede that in AFL it’s nowhere near as common. If a fight broke out at a golf game would I be shocked? Yes, I think I would. Nobody goes with the possibility of that on their mind.

      What concerns me is that there are a lot of naive assumptions that have been made on pretty flimsy ground. The blatant public disrespect for the house at the start of the game? Didn’t rate a mention. The hit on the goaltender who is protected under the rules? You wondered whether he is fair game. The most cursory amount of research would demonstrate the opposite. The fact that Wilson taunted Vinnie in the belief that the linesman would hold him at bay, and deliberately put himself in harms way? Didn’t rate.

      To do so in a context outside one where fighting is known to be a distinct possibility would of course look far less than socially acceptable, however when in context where is the issue? A blog post comparing our condoning of speed on a racetrack and deploring it on our roads would be just as relevant.

  5. Net Tender says:

    Mmmm fighting in ice hockey is as old as the game, and yes goalies are off limits. Hell if your crazy enough to willingly stand in front of 160 Kmph pucks and take it, then you deserve some protection. There are not many people willing to dive on a puck with sticks/skates/pucks flying slaying 1 to 2 cm from their face. If your willing to put your head over the puck then you deserve some protection. Same as football, the player with his head over the ball deserves some protection.

    If the refs won’t then you expect your teams mates to back you. If you look closely at the last LA Kings V NJ Stanley Cup final game. A bad hit un-penalised by the refs resulted in a NJ player taking out a LA Kings player. Yes you shouldn’t take the ‘law’ into your own hands – and ultimately it cost NJ the Cup. But team sports have a rule of if others won’t you support your team mates.

    So back to Vinnie, yes Stu was taken out even though he should have been protected by the Ref’s. Read the rules, in or out of the crease the goalie is protected from being run through. A 2 minute minor doesn’t cut it. Did Vinnie go over the top – Yes/No. No in Old school hockey he was well within limits. Yes in “PC” hockey he did. There are two worlds of hockey NHL and the rest of the world. NHL is moving at glacier pace to stamp out fighting, the rest of the world – including Australia officially has already made the move to non-fighting. But one has to remember a lot of coaches/players come from North America where NHL rules, so that is the style of game they play and bring here to Australia. Full contact/fighting.

    And yes after the game I can personally testify that Vinnie and Wilson had no issues. They both accepted it as part and parcel of the game they love.

    Was Vinnie pressured to give an apology no idea.

    Did the tribunal decide to make an example of Vinnie is another question. I know IHAL want to clean the game up and have made no bones about that fact. Yes the players are aware of the direction hockey wants to head so you fight at your own risk.

    • Thanks for writing, Net tender … that was the perfect afterthought to the incident. Old Time Hockey sums it up and it’s good to hear that Vinnie and Wilson were cool which each other afterwards. It reminds me of Rocky and Apollo Creed – ending up as best buddies after their rivalry … and now I’m getting all misty.
      cheers
      Nicko

Trackbacks

  1. […] Nickdoeshockey has a good post on the incident. I’m amused to note the presence of Patrick in the comments of both nickdoeshockey and Hewitt Sports. […]

  2. […] guy called Patrick, taking umbrage at my “Violence of Vinnie Hughes” post a week ago, mentioned that this site was self-indulgent and well, yes, guilty as […]

  3. […] and his Ice-import coaching partner, Martin Kutek, and b) I had recently raised questions about the violence of Joey’s brother, Ice captain Vinnie’s in an Ice game. Joey Hughes, in action for the Ice. Pic: Canberra […]

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