CHAPTER SEVEN

SAFETY FIRST

  

Parents not only have a right to be concerned about the safety of their children while playing hockey, they have a responsibility for ensuring that they are not allowed to participate in activities which may endanger their physical well-being. That statement alone, if taken at face value, would put an end to hockey.

For example, if a parent was taken to court and had to stand in front of a judge to defend his decision to enroll his son or daughter on a hockey team, how could he successfully explain that he was acting in the best interests of his child?

A good lawyer would still be able to present a strong case in defense of the parent. After all, we have seen tremendous advances in the quality of equipment that is worn by players in hockey today. A child is covered from head to foot and is seemingly invincible. Yet serious injuries do occur. We have national programs of instruction for coaches and trainers that provide them with basic first-aid knowledge for dealing with on-ice injuries. We have organized leagues according to the ability of players. We have adjusted the age groupings so that they coincide more closely with the growth patterns of children. We have even surrounded the playing surface with protective netting to guard against injuring fans.

Yet, in spite of everything we have done in hockey today to ensure the protection of players, there is still one, and only one person who is ultimately in control of safety in a game of hockey – that person is the referee!

Once the puck is dropped and the game begins, it is the referee who determines how the rules of the game are going to be applied. The rules have been established not only to give order to the game, but also to penalize those players who have disregard for the physical well being of opponents. Yet, we know that a referee often allows players to get away with obvious infractions. In the vast majority of cases, things look much worse from the stands than they actually are. However, there are times when players “get out of control” and cause injuries to their opponents.

If a referee was allowed to call “all penalties” that take place in a game, it would be a much safer environment. However, the minute that a referee calls a game tightly, and starts to hand out penalty after penalty, the coaches and fans begin to demand that the official “let the kids play”.

Yet, when the play gets too rough, the same coaches and fans accuse the referee of “losing control of the game”.

If one team is committing the majority of infractions, and the referee has the courage to issue penalty after penalty to the offending players, the coach and fans begin to yell that there “are two teams out there” and the referee is perceived to be favouring one side over the other.  It is a no-win situation for the referee, no matter at which level he is involved.

In order to focus on the main priority of safety, referees should always be aware of the question of liability.

A QUESTION OF LIABILITY

When a referee is unsure of whether or not he is managing the game well, he should ask himself the following question:

 “If a player was seriously injured in this game, and the parent sued me for negligence because I was the referee, would a judge be able to find me guilty of creating a dangerous environment where this injury or some other injury was inevitable?”

In other words, would the referee be able to prove that he called the game in a manner that provided for the safety of the players? Or did he allow players to get away with infractions of such a serious nature that it was inevitable that someone was going to get hurt?

When a referee asks himself the “Could I defend my actions in a court of law” he tends to call more according to the rulebook. This usually means a steady stream of players to the penalty box, but at the end of the day, no one could accuse him of not doing his part to protect the safety of the players. If the players continued to commit serious infractions such as checking from behind, slashing, high-sticking, etc. and a person was subsequently injured, there is no way a referee could be found negligent. The onus would then shift to the coaches and players themselves who could not exhibit self-control. It might also shift to the parents who were enticing the players to play in a violent manner.

A referee who “lets them play the game” by not calling penalties, leaves himself wide open to the full force of the law in the case of an injury. If witness after witness from both teams come forward to testify that the players were allowed to play in a violent and reckless manner which placed them all in danger, it is the referee who will bear the brunt of the legal blame for the injury. If the score sheet is filled with penalties and witnesses come forward to testify that the referee was calling a lot of penalties, then the referee will have done his job and the blame will rest with the coaches.

No one wants to see a young player seriously injured, but the reality of the world we live in is that when something goes wrong, everyone looks for someone to blame. The rules of the game clearly place the onus for safety on the referee once the puck is dropped. Referees would be wise to err on the side of calling too many penalties rather than on not calling enough.

As a parent, a mother or father certainly has the right to voice concern to league officials if they feel that games are not being refereed with safety of the players in mind. Investigations will occur and you will receive a response from the referee-in-chief. It is always advisable for a parent to send complaints in writing in situations such as this. Once a league is put on notice that there may be a problem, if a serious injury occurs, and the league has been made aware of the problem, then the league will face the consequences. This is why all complaints will be investigated and acted upon.

On the other hand, we must not take this advice as a license to intimidate. If a person is merely a sore loser and just wants to make life difficult for a referee by writing in a complaint which has no foundation, then it is recommended that the league and the official that a formal charge be filed against the parent or coach who initiated the complaint. Legitimate complaints are always encouraged. Nefarious complaints should be dealt with severely since they can severely damage the reputation and good name of an official.

SAFETY IS  EVERYONE’S RESPONSIBILITY

There are many other areas that must be taken into consideration when dealing with the issue of safety in hockey. For example, you should not risk your life by driving in a snowstorm to get to a hockey game, and if you have someone else drive your son or daughter to the game or practice, make sure it is a responsible person to whom you are entrusting your child. You should also make sure that your child is physically prepared to compete. If the child is not feeling well or has an injury, you should stand firm and refuse to allow him or her to play and risk further injury.

Coaches must also ensure that the dressing room is well supervised. For the most part, friendly bantering and horseplay do occur in a dressing room, especially with the younger age groups.  We all know that horse play shouldn’t be allowed because players may get hurt, but the fact of the matter is that if you have a dressing room where players don’t do some form of bonding, then your team’s chemistry will be missing and the players may feel that if they show any emotion at all it is wrong.  We want our children to have fun, not feel like they are in a “Boot Camp”. Nevertheless, safety and supervision of the dressing room is a very important responsibility which must be addressed by the parents and coaching staff.

Safety in the stands and in the lobby is a whole other matter. If a parent is becoming overbearing and threatening the safety of not only the children, but also the coaches, officials and other parents, then it is time to go to the rink attendant and voice these concerns.  If the matter is serious enough then the rink attendant will call the Police to handle the matter.  It is never advisable for a parent to confront an irate fan. This may lead to a fight in the stands and not only look bad for the game of hockey, but also cause a great deal of embarrassment for the players.

If you always place safety first and foremost on your mind, you will seldom go wrong. Try it the next time you want to complain about a penalty being called by a referee. Also keep it in mind the next time you or someone near you tells a referee to “let them play”.