The Distinguished Sports Observer's Guide to Avoiding the Words "Classless" and "Dirty"

I hate to start anything with a “Webster’s Dictionary states...” style definition, but it has a point, so bear with me:
1. (of a society) not divided into social classes.
 Wait a minute, that’s not right.  Okay, maybe this is closer.
2. characterized by the absence of economic and social distinctions
 Not really, but kind of...wait, okay here we go:
informal: showing stylish excellence
Classless.  Without class.  Having no class.  Sans class.  The inability to show stylish excellence.  These are all ideas of classlessness.  In the sports world, classless relates to a direct and wiling attack against the rules with the intent of harming another player or the laws of the game.  Playing the game with a reckless disregard for all things good and just in the sport.  Playing outside of the box, in effect, is not allowed in the sports world.  Walter Sobchak would have made a great commissioner with the motto, “Am I the only one around here who gives a sh*t about the rules?”  But, if a player does this enough, or in a gloriously reckless way, they are labeled by the fans of that sports as a “cheat”, “dirty”, or “classless”.  In hockey it can range from anything from playing the puck from the bench, to making direct intentional contact with another player for the sake of injuring that player or to seek retribution, to sucker punching an opponent in the back of the head.  The NHL’s most recent talking point revolves around intent to injure, most notably, headshots and removing dangerous collisions. 

One hopes that Brendan Shanahan and the rest of the NHL rules people are doing their best to get rid of the dirty plays much like those hot beats off of Raffi Torres’s Greatest Hits Album.  But, to call someone like Torres dirty is missing the point: his style of play is no longer tolerated in the NHL.  He must serve a 25 game suspension, and if he doesn’t straighten up and fly right after serving his suspension, he will be socially ostracized, he will be awarded no points, and may God have mercy on his soul.

But, what does it mean to be a classless, dirty, goon, punk, no-good dirty rotten rebel hotshot who plays by no one else’s rules but his own?  Well, by playing outside of the box, they essentially play outside of the established rules.  Thus not playing the game hard, fast, clean, and with “stylish excellence”, right?  How about playing without “integrity”, which literally means just playing within the rules.  It’s when players play outside of the established rules, jeopardizing the “integrity of the game”, that commissioner Gary Bettman or Shanahan step in.

Recently, the hard part for the League is defining “integrity”, a continuously fluid idea in a violent sport like hockey.  A hit legal in the year 2000 is not legal now, for obvious reasons, but it does not mean that players avoided making that hit then.  The role of the goon, like–albeit a fictional example–the Hanson brothers from the movie Slapshot, a reckless abandon style of player on most lineups through the early to mid-2000s, has all but disappeared from most teams in an effort to implement more offense and skill to the game.

Sometimes the League's definition of this fluid idea causes confusion among players and coaches.  Applying this idea to the recent Pens–Flyers series and final meetings in the regular season, one sees how team personnel and the League can interpret the idea of “integrity” differently.  Take Flyers coach Peter Laviolette’s argument with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, calling him “gutless” for playing his fourth line with less than two minutes left in a decided game a week before the playoffs.  Yes, hard hits were had, and fighting ensued, but the Penguins players did not do anything outside of the established rules.  Unexpected, yes, but not enough to say that they jeopardized the integrity of the game.  Conversely, look at the Pens-Flyers playoff Game 3, when Penguins Arron Asham, Craig Adams, and James Neal went outside of the rules with their excessive violence.  The league stepped in and suspended all three players.  How about, for fun, we label them as “classless” players, you know, just to get a row out of those journalistic types.  What does that mean?  It means they are players that take the rules into their own hands; players that the league will look at much closer in the future.  The league knows who to watch, especially those “repeat offenders” that Shanahan talks about.  Yeah, maybe we as fans don’t agree with every decision (*cough* Shea Weber *cough*), but be sure precedent has been set and will be set for the future with every dangerous hit.  The beauty of modern sport lies in the ability to fluctuate and change as needed.

So, applying this idea to something semi-local, the “classless”, “dirty”, “goon” mantra has officially started in the Kings-Blues series.  This same dialogue went on during the Kings-Canucks series with numerous accusations of diving, headshots, and aggressive play through the first three games.  You see this to a lesser extent in the Blues-Sharks series, notably with the fight at the end of Game 2 – the beginning of the end for the Sharks.

Game 1 of the Kings-Blues series saw a questionable hit by the Kings’ Dwight King on Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.  Immediately, two opposing sides form on whether or not this hit is a malicious and dangerous, and thus suspendable, play.  Ultimately, the league decided not to punish King any further (he got 2 minutes for boarding for the hit).  Then, Game 2 gave us the crazy physical play by the Blues after the Kings’ fifth goal, and the borderline hit by Kings d-man Willie Mitchell (past concussion victim) on Jamie Langenbrunner.  Otherwise, you’re just talking about two tough teams beating the crap out of each other for about 38 minutes.  As NBC Sports commentator Brian Engblom stated in roundabout fashion numerous times during the third period (and I’m paraphrasing) “This is the playoffs.”  Alas, Mr. Engblom's assertion aside, the conversation in the comments section gets ugly or non compos mentis and strong opinions form among the fans of the two sides, and, as stated in the Internet Guide to Civil Conversation and Open Dialogue Vol. III, that does not follow the modern conventions of cordial hockey debates.

When in doubt about the physicality of an NHL playoff series, ask this question:  Has either team gone out of their way to be malicious or make a mockery of the game?  I don’t think so.  It’s hard hitting.  It’s a battle.  It’s going to be rough at times because neither team wants to give up an inch.  And, in that same vain, no player wants to cost their team by sitting out or become the primary focus of the referees.
Is Dustin Brown classless for his aggressive board play and whiplash effect?  How about Carlo Colaiacovo for rabbit punching Brown?  If you answer 'yes' in either case, then there are many other current and former players you can lump in the dirty pile with them.

So, the point of all this is that the Reactionary Internet Community doesn’t mean “classless” when they say “classless,” nor do they understand that when they say “dirty” they actually mean “classless,” which, if you were just paying attention, is not the word they actually mean.  They mean “belittling the integrity of the game,” but, as mentioned, the integrity of the game is a fluid idea, which it should be in a progressive society like this one.  The Reactionary Internet Community (as well as the Ignorant Internet Folks) will say what they want to say, and there is nothing you or I or anyone can do about it.  You can troll as much as anyone else can troll, and that’s about it, and that solves nothing (except being incredibly hilarious sometimes).

But, my main point: Always question things.  Question the League.  Question the motivations of the players, for they are in fact human beings.  But, have confidence that the League will handle things in an appropriate way, and that players will play the game right.  And, dammit, above all else, just enjoy yourself.  I mean, it’s the freakin’ Stanley Cup playoffs! 


Oh, hey, I’m on that Twitter contraption now!  Shhhh, don’t tell me how 2009 turns out, I haven’t gotten all the way through yet.

For all Kansas City-area related hockey news and links to other cool stuff (and links to articles on this blog), follow @FlubberMcGee