The tooth hurts: NHL's unsavory history of biting

ByDavid Fleming ESPN logo
Friday, June 5, 2015

A 2007 study by the National Institutes of Health found that almost 90 percent of all human-on-human biting incidents involved some form of alcohol. The other 10 percent, we can all now safely presume, were somehow related to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Wednesday night in Tampa, during a skirmish along the glass in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, the Lightning's Victor Hedman had Chicago forward Andrew Shaw wrapped up in a suffocating, rather impressive, one-armed headlock when Hedman says he felt Shaw gnawing on his torso as if he were an ear of corn. Back on the bench, his jersey lifted up to show a trainer the damage, you can clearly see a stunned Hedman mouth the words "He bit me." There was no penalty on the play, however, and a team of NHL officials reviewed the incident and found no conclusive evidence that would henceforth allow me to forever refer to the Blackhawks forward as "Shaws."

Now, I understand that for many of us the very notion of athletes feasting on the flesh of other combatants conjures up a variety of disturbing memories and associations. (And, for others, sure, a touch of "Twilight"-inspired odaxelagnia -- no judgement here, folks.) There is, indeed, something spectacularly infantile, insane and deeply revolting about athletes -- like Mike Tyson, Luis Suarez, or, say, Australian rules footballer Peter Filandia, who once bit another player, um, in the genitals -- pushed to a level of intense competition where frustration, emotion and aggression short-circuit rational thought to the point that cannibalism seems like a viable option.

But in the NHL, shoot, they just call that the playoffs.

I know what you're thinking: The normally stoic sport of hockey seems like the last place on earth where this trend would take root. For starters, if you've ever played the game or been within 10 yards of game-worn hockey equipment, then you understand how the smell alone should be more than enough of a deterrent. But the opposite is true. I can't explain it, but right now anyone who has ever been facewashed in the heat of the moment by a defenseman's dead-fish-inside-an-old-work-boot-smelling hockey glove is thinking to himself, "Frankly, I'm surprised more guys don't get bit."

In fact, "natural instinct" is how Chris Chelios defended himself after confessing to a 1984 biting attack on the Rangers' Tomas Sandstrom, who, in all fairness, was trying to gouge out Chelios' eyes at the time. The same defense was employed by Washington's Brooks Laich during the 2011 playoffs when he was accused of biting the Rangers' Sean Avery. Eye-gouging was also part of the 1990 biting incident between Dave Manson of the Blackhawks (the biter) and Scott Stevens (the bitee), although what really distinguished this encounter was the NHL actually did something about it, suspending both players for three games.

I also find it ironic -- and fascinating on a deeply psychological level -- that the very athletes who have lost most of their teeth are the ones most likely to make finger food out of each other. (I believe this might even have been tooth-deficient Penguins winger Matt Cooke's defense in 2010 when he was accused of biting, er, gumming, the Flyers' Arron Asham. A year earlier in this once-heated rivalry, it was Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell who was accused of snapping on Pittsburgh's Kris Letang.) But no less of an authority than the CBC once published a story categorizing all this biting as "an NHL tradition," going so far as to call the last decade the "golden era of NHL biting."

(I understand the need for ratings, but if more lazy sports fans can't understand and appreciate the unparalleled heart, artistry, speed, teamwork and spectacular violence of this sport, well, letting the players go full zombie-vampire on each other isn't going to help.)

For me, and many other hockey lovers, all things ugly, dirty and tasteless in this wonderful sport start and end with legendary goon Claude Lemieux. During the 1986 Cup finals between Montreal and Calgary (back when, ya know, Canadian teams still competed for the Cup), Flames forward Jim Peplinski needed a bandage and a tetanus shot after Lemieux went Dr. Lecter on one of his fingers. Smart move, by the way, since the most dangerous thing about a hockey bite isn't the incisors, or smart-aleck media types, but the 150 different types of dangerous bacteria found in human saliva. Said Peplinksi: "I didn't know they allowed cannibalism in the NHL."

Allow it?

In the last decade, it has been almost as common as playoff beards.

In 2009, Ottawa Senators forward Jarkko Ruutu was suspended two games for allegedly biting the thumb of Buffalo Sabres tough guy Andrew Peters.

In the 2010 playoffs, the Flyers' Daniel Carcillo claimed to have been bitten by repeat offender and suspected vampire Marc Savard of the Bruins. "Men don't bite men," Carcillo said. That, in my book, is the second-best jock bite sound bite, ever. The best? That came in 1983 when Atlanta Hawks center Tree Rollins bit Boston Celtics guard Danny Ainge's finger down to the tendon, inspiring the Boston Herald headline "Tree Bites Man."

And then, of course, there was the 2011 Stanley Cup finals featuring Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows, who received zero discipline despite getting pretty much caught in the act of trying to make sure Boston's Patrice Bergeron would never be able to signal a bartender for one more drink. Burrows must have used the age-old biblical defense employed by my brother Bill and every other big brother on the planet: "Hey, buddy, if you don't want me to bite your finger off, keep it out of my mouth."

Rallying around Bergeron's nine good digits, the Bruins went on the win the Cup.

Can the Bolts do the same with Hedman's half-eaten rib?

Well, after a flying, dominant start to Game 1, the young, fast but inexperienced Lightning took their feet off the gas for less than two minutes late in the game.

Chicago made them pay, stealing the series opener 2-1 and proving, for the second time Wednesday night, which of these two teams is hungrier for the Cup.

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