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
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
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
THE SEVEN CAUSES OF VIOLENCE IN AMATEUR HOCKEY IN 1974
the influence of professional hockey with its emphasis on winning
and use of violence as a tactical instrument to achieve that goal;
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;
lack of any proper definition of the purpose and objectives of
amateur hockey, with its own model and rule structure;
failure of referees to apply existing rules, and inconsistency and
lack of support for referees from fans, coaches and players;
failure of coaches to control players, and an emphasis on winning
games rather than instilling the true value of sport and developing skills;
a lack of respect of players for rules and officials; and
undue pressure from parents, fans and coaches with over-emphasis on
Let's take a brief look at each of the points that McMurtry made in
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?".
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.