Violence In Minor Hockey
Nothing Has Changed In Thirty Years

  
The whole issue of violence in minor hockey continues to receive a tremendous of attention and consumes an even greater amount of energy among just about everyone in the sport today. People are concerned, rightly so, with the safety of young boys and girls playing this popular game. There are also many theories about what is causing the current level of violence and an equal number of theories about how to reduce the incidents of violence in the game at all levels.

In order to understand the nature of violence in hockey today, it is important to realize that hockey is very much like a revolving door. Parents enroll their children at the age of six or even younger. The children usually play until they are in their early teens, and then they drop out of competitive hockey. Thus, every seven or eight years, we have a completely new batch of parents and players entering the system. Eventually, the old timers disappear and after about twenty or thirty years, there is no one around who really remembers the "good old days".

The reality is that there have been numerous studies and papers written about violence in hockey. However, there have been only about two major Canadian reports which have had much of an impact on the game. The first was done in 1974 by a man by the name of William McMurtry. It was a report done for the Government of Ontario entitled, "Investigation and Inquiry into Violence in Amateur Hockey" and was dubbed, "The McMurtry Report".

Mr. McMurtry provided insight into what he found to be the seven main causes of violence in amateur hockey. The  list is not in any particular order of importance. We will comment on his findings after you have had a chance to read the summary of his report. Remember that this report was released in 1974, almost thirty years prior to the printing of this book.

THE SEVEN CAUSES OF VIOLENCE IN AMATEUR HOCKEY IN 1974

(1)   the influence of professional hockey with its emphasis on winning and use of violence as a tactical instrument to achieve that goal;

(2)    a rule structure (in professional and amateur hockey) which not only tolerates violence but encourages its use by rewarding those who excel in physical intimidation -- it also makes reciprocal violence inevitable;

(3)   lack of any proper definition of the purpose and objectives of amateur hockey, with its own model and rule structure;

(4)   failure of referees to apply existing rules, and inconsistency and lack of support for referees from fans, coaches and players;

(5)   failure of coaches to control players, and an emphasis on winning games rather than instilling the true value of sport and developing skills;

(6)   a lack of respect of players for rules and officials; and

(7)   undue pressure from parents, fans and coaches with over-emphasis on winning.

Let's take a brief look at each of the points that McMurtry made in 1974.

The influence of professional hockey with its emphasis on winning and use of violence as a tactical instrument to achieve that goal. 

McMurtry did his study during the days when the Philadelphia Flyers were known as the "Broad Street Bullies". Philadelphia introduced a whole new style of play which was based on the use of brute force to pound and beat up opponents into submission. It was so bad that they actually won some games simply because their opposition merely wanted to get out of the city. Fighting, stick work and any other form of violence became commonplace and that was the day when each team began drafting two or three "goons" who would be ready to protect their more skilled players. 

The influence of professional hockey was definitely evident among minor hockey players. This was also the time when fighting in minor hockey resulted in only a five minute penalty. There were no face shields on helmets and equipment left a lot to be desired. Minor hockey players began playing just like the "Broad Street Bullies", because Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup with this style of play! It worked and it worked well. Furthermore, the young teenage boys playing the game loved the aggressive style, actually getting more satisfaction out of a punishing body check than out of scoring a goal.

Today, in 2003, professional hockey still has a tremendous influence. It still emphasizes winning and we still hear teams talk about "taking it to the other team physically", "hating their opponents", and "signing enforcers for their team." The only thing that has changed is that the winning teams are not necessarily using the physical tactics to win the Stanley Cup. Instead, they are winning by utilizing a style of play which is defensive, and boring, relying more on hooking, grabbing and interference and a dump and chase philosophy which simply wears out their opponent - some would go so far as to say that they put their opponents to sleep and then take advantage of this to score one goal to win the game.

Therefore, if one were to take a close look at professional hockey, in particular the NHL, one would have to say that, while the game certainly has its violent moments at times, hockey at the highest professional level is much less violent today than it was in 1974. As a result, I would offer a suggestion that the increasing level of violence at the minor level in 2003 cannot be blamed on professional hockey.

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Back in 1974 this was partially true. Players like Marty McSorley and Dave Shultz opened up a new career for young hockey players who lacked skill but could dish out the punishment on skates. If you were big and willing to fight, you now could win one of three or four spots on any professional team. Amateur hockey began to mirror the professionals in that players who may not have the necessary skills to break into the OHL and the professional leagues still had a chance and coaches began to keep several goons on the team. It wasn't unusual to see an entire line formed as the "Crushers" or the "Crash and Bash Line". Near the end of a game which was lost, coaches often would send out their goon lines in an attempt to adhere to the old adage, "If you can't beat them on the ice, beat them in the alley."

Reciprocal violence was inevitable in the 1970's. If you hit one of the stars, be ready to tangle with one of the fighters. That was what they were there for. Yet, hockey is no different in this respect than most other professional sports. In baseball, for example, if a pitcher hits a batter with a pitch, it is quite common that during the next inning one of the pitcher's team mates will be thrown at in an attempt to even up the matter. This often leads to beach-clearing brawls.

In the 1970's, however, reciprocal violence often resulted in bench-clearing brawls or vicious fights between the two heavy weights to settle the score. If a player slashed an opponent on the back of the legs, or slammed him head-first into the boards, the victim often jumped to his feet, dropped his gloves and took care of the issue right then and there. Both players would serve five minutes in the box and then continue play afterwards, none the worse for wear. After the fight, the player would seldom slash another opponent in the same way for fear of having to go through another fight.

McMurtry was correct in stating that there was a great deal of violence in the sport in the 1970's. Nevertheless, there are many followers of hockey who would argue that there is far more violence in the game in 2003, even though we now eject players from the game for fighting and checking from behind. The violence now is the result of the vicious use of the stick on vulnerable areas of the body and the crushing body checks which are dished out seconds after the puck has been released by an unsuspecting victim. The fights in minor hockey are much more intense because of the fact that the players know they will be tossed out of the game. Therefore, when a minor hockey player gets involved in a fight, he will do everything he possibly can to get the upper hand and hurt his opponent. He knows he will not have to face the player again during that game and since he is being ejected anyway, why not go crazy and ballistic?

With respect to the issue of reciprocal violence, it is often an innocent bystander who becomes the victim. For example, if a player from the home team slashes a player from the visiting team on the back of the legs when the referee is not looking, the visiting player will usually be smart enough to know that there is no use in hitting back his attacker right away and getting the only penalty. So the visiting player will wait until he can slash any other player from the home team to get even. Getting even once meant dishing out punishment to the person who started the problem in the first place. Now, getting even means hurting any player from the other team at the first opportunity. And it doesn't matter who administers the punishment. Before long, in many minor hockey games today, you see players who have always been known for their clean play developing bad habits of slashing and spearing in order to retaliate for treatment they have received.

The game once rewarded those who excelled in physical intimidation. Today the game rewards those who are sneaky and cowardly and who have mastered the art of striking opponents who are not looking. We reward those players who can get under the skin of attacking players and who hide behind the referee when they are being pursued themselves. Referees know who these players are, but there is little they can do if they don't see an infraction taking place. When they see the retaliation they know that something was done to cause the situation to develop, but a referee can only call what he sees. Nevertheless, the next time you see a fight break out in minor hockey, watch how the referee and linesmen handle themselves. If they back away and allow the players an opportunity to fight, it may very well be that one of the players in the fight has been irritating his opponents all game long and this is one way of allowing the other team to get even. When a coward finds himself one on one without the protection of the "stripes" he usually very quickly falls to the ice and covers up in what is known as a "turtle position" so that the linesmen are forced to stop the fight.

So our definition of violence has changed in the past thirty years, but unfortunately, our rule-makers who perhaps had all of the right motives, have now created a game where players are in much greater danger than they ever were and instead of rewarding those who excel in physical intimidation, we reward those who have mastered a form of guerilla warfare on the ice.

Lack of any proper definition of the purpose and objectives of amateur hockey, with its own model and rule structure.

During the 1950's and 1960's, hockey was considered a "game". If you were good, you could make it on one of the "six" NHL clubs. If you could only make it to the minor leagues at the professional level, you had better find a part-time job to supplement your income.

Then the corporate world discovered that there was big money in sports entertainment and the number of professional teams expanded rapidly during the late 1960's and 70's. You also had the creation of a rival league with the World Hockey Association and all of a sudden there was huge money being paid to professional hockey players.

Minor hockey organizations realized that they had to develop a model and establish some sort of consistency in order to allow young children the opportunity to pursue a professional hockey career. The purpose and objectives of amateur hockey suddenly became much clearer after the McMurtry Report. Amateur Hockey had become a "feeder" system for the professional leagues. Hockey was no longer a game. It was big business and it suddenly became just as cut-throat as the corporate world. The game was not important any more. What was important was to become the development league for the NHL and thus command some of the corporate sponsorship money that was being tossed around the sport.

Failure of coaches to control players, and an emphasis on winning games rather than instilling the true value of sport and developing skills.

In the early 1970's the world of professional hockey was just picking up momentum. But the acceleration was rapid. Coaches were now under a tremendous amount of pressure from parents and from their associations. In addition, with the increase in the number of professional clubs at the NHL level, the minor professional leagues were also experiencing a rapid turn-over and expansion. If a city didn't get an NHL or WHA franchise, the next best thing was an AHL or CHL franchise. And all of those teams needed coaches and assistant coaches.

Suddenly coaches who dreamed of making it to the NHL as a player when they were young, saw another opportunity as a coach. And it became clear that the professional clubs wanted coaches who could win. Things were changing so rapidly and players were leaving existing teams to go to others simply because they were chasing the big bucks. Team loyalty was gone. Who cared if you played your entire career with the same team? You would play for whomever gave you the most money.

The emphasis was on winning at all costs. The true value of the sport and the development of skills were no longer the top priority in hockey. Even at the youngest of levels in minor hockey, winning became all-important. No one wanted to be associated with a losing team. And when you listen to a parent asking his/her son or daughter about the game they have just played, the first question they ask is, "Did you win?".

Nothing has changed in the past thirty years in this regard. The emphasis is still on winning. We train our coaches on how to teach young players skills. We spend an enormous amount of money sending kids to summer camps and buying books and videos on how to develop skills. And yet, when it comes to the actual game, we show the children how to play a boring, yet effective system which will minimize the chances of being scored upon until we can pounce on an opportunity to score ourselves. It doesn't matter if we win 1-0 or 2-1. What matters is that we end up on the right side of the score.

Undue pressure from parents, fans and coaches with over-emphasis on winning.

The first thing we must understand is that no one enters a competition to lose. If you want to play on a hockey team, you want that team to win. That is precisely why you practice and try to improve on your skills and team tactics. There has always been and will always be an emphasis on winning. The question is, "Is there such a thing as an over-emphasis on winning?" I would suggest that there isn't.

However, the pressure from parents, fans and coaches on the children who are playing the game has become enormous over the years. This has occurred for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important reason has to do with the rapidly increasing cost of minor hockey. Equipment is better and more expensive; ice time costs more; the number of games played has increased; out of town tournaments have become common place, thus requiring fund-raising and costing parents hundreds of dollars for a single weekend; and the rising salaries at the professional level have all given rise to an unbelievable amount of pressure for children to succeed and share in the riches of professional hockey.

Getting a professional hockey contract is like winning the lottery. The child is the ticket. And parents want to make sure that the ticket has a chance to win the jackpot. Hence, you have a lot of pressure and this pressure is being felt by children at the youngest of ages. We see minor hockey players break under this pressure all of the time. Sometimes it produces violent and irrational behaviour on the ice. Other times it results in a child quitting the game at the age of 12 or 13. On many occasions it results in children lashing out at coaches, parents and officials.

The emphasis on winning hasn't changed in thirty years. What has changed is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Now it is worth pursuing and it resembles a crowd of young girls scrambling for the bouquet as it is thrown by a bride at her wedding. If you want to catch the flowers, you have to get rough.

A lack of respect of players for rules and officials.

No one likes rules and very few participants in any sport like it when an official accuses them of breaking a rule. Whether this is a lack of respect or a fact of life is a philosophical question. 

Once again, when McMurtry was writing his report, conditions were very much the same as they are now in 2003. We also tolerated more arguing with officials and expected that a player would argue with a referee all the way to the penalty box after being called for an infraction. This still happens, except that referees have been more consistent at calling misconduct and game misconduct penalties to curb this behaviour. It is not clear to me how this created violence in the game of hockey.

What we have done since the McMurtry Report is add to the number of rules in the book. It seems as if whenever some interest group had a cause to push, a new rule was created to solve the problem. Today there are so many rules, and many of them the kind of rule which require "judgment and discretion" on the part of officials, that it has become almost impossible to referee.

The "judgment call" has always been a part of hockey. And whenever you penalize a player based on your judgment of how the action was initiated, you will have an argument. It is only human nature. So what may on the surface appear to be a lack of respect of players for rules and officials may in fact simply be a sign of frustration at being caught. For example, even if you know you are speeding, you are not happy if a police officer pulls you over and gives you a ticket. Your response is often extremely agitated, although if you are smart, you will keep it to yourself until the officer is long gone. You can argue if you want, but it won't help you. You can plead and beg, but it won't help you. You can even show disrespect for the officer, but this will result in further punishment and fines. When you are caught, you don't recall the hundreds of times you were speeding and were not pulled over. You simply focus on this time and are upset that the officer would pick you instead of the car in front.

The same is true in hockey. If the referee calls you for tripping, you can immediately recall numerous instances during the game when the referee allowed someone else off scott-free for doing the same kind of thing to you. You don't recall the several times during the game when you tripped or hooked an opponent and were not called for a penalty. You are angry that you were caught and you often lash out.

When you get out of the penalty box, you sometimes take it out on other players and this can lead to violence, but more often than not you simply blame the referee and continue to talk about him in a disrespectful manner for the rest of the game and afterwards.

Failure of referees to apply existing rules, and inconsistency and lack of support for referees from fans, coaches and players.

It is important for me to point out that the McMurtry Report was written in 1974. The above conclusion could have been made about hockey today and likely also at any time in the history of the sport. The complaint has always been made that referees are failing to call the games with consistency. Teams may come up to a referee who calls the game by the book and they will find themselves in the box all night long. The very next game they may get a referee who calls nothing and the match becomes a slugfest. 

Generally speaking, an individual referee will be consistent from game to game. This means that players and coaches have to be "smart enough" to recognize who is calling the game and adjust their play accordingly. When I was coaching at the minor hockey level, I always checked before the game to find out who was refereeing before I gave the players my pre-game instructions. The referee determined how the team would be required to play. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, but I'm also not sure the two-man system in the NHL is a good thing either. Now, instead of having to worry about how one referee calls the game, you are faced with two men on the ice at the same time. Now you find inconsistency at both ends of the ice in plain view for all to see. The NHL is attempting to make things more consistent from game to game, but in reality what they are doing is making the art of refereeing something of a mechanical process with no room for judgment. It may be working at the NHL level, but it does nothing for amateur hockey since lower levels cannot afford to put two referees on the ice at the same time.

The issue of lack of support for referees needs little explanation. Referees receive very little support from fans, coaches and players. However, what is even more distressing is that referees do not receive enough consistent support from league administrators. Instead of accepting a game report as written, referees are often grilled by administrators about a serious call. In many cases, suspensions are reduced or overturned based on suspicion that a referee may have "over reacted" or "made the wrong call". It doesn't take a young referee very long to realize that he is sometimes better off not making any call than trying to be so strict that everyone complains.

When I was in my second year of teaching elementary school I came up against the same kind of situation. I wanted to be known as a tough teacher, so I demanded high standards from my Grade 8 math class. The marks on the report card were very low and during parent-teacher interview night I noticed that my colleagues had very few parents waiting in line to see them, while my line was growing with every minute. My fellow teachers were gone home about two hours before I completed all of my interviews. Most of the parents were very upset that their children had always received high grades before coming to my class and now they were failing. They demanded to know what I was doing wrong. The low standards that had been set in previous years resulted in a tremendous amount of pressure on me to change my ways. I had a decision to make, and while I am not proud of that decision, when the marks all went up the next term, I finished my parent teacher interviews at the same time as my colleagues from then on.

So if we want referees to call the rules consistently according to the way they have been written, we had better be prepared for a storm of protest from parents, coaches and players. If the referees can weather the storm and if they get the support they need from administration, perhaps things will change. However, don't hold your breath. Referees are only human. And consistence among different human beings is something that is rare.

Perhaps the parents, coaches, players and fans should be the ones to change. How about being more consistent about accepting the fact that referees are always trying their best to be fair and just? How about letting them do their job and giving them positive encouragement and support? Perhaps referees really are applying the rules consistently. Perhaps we just have to see the game "without the silver lining" and try to see things as they appear through the eyes of the referee.

 
 
 

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