Last weekend, at a provincial music competition, a 13-year-old boy with a special talent dazzled the audience with a fabulous rendition of an étude by Chopin. His parents looked more nervous than he did, clenching their hands and nodding along in intense concentration. They needn't have worried. Their boy was flawless and took his bow with a smile of pride and relief. Then the next competitor took the stage. A 14-year-old kid from another town, his parents just as nervous and excited, his suit looking just as fresh-from-the-hanger, slid straight-backed onto the piano bench. As his hands hovered over the keys, awaiting the adjudicator's nod, the mother of the first competitor leaped to her feet and yelled, "Get off the stage, you bum! You suck!" She then proceeded to hurl epithets at the judges.
If that seems shocking and unbelievable, it's because it didn't really happen. There was a competition, and there were young people competing for musical honours. The parents, though, listened respectfully and afterwards applauded each other's children, congratulating them for their hard work and fine performances. After all, what sane parent would deride another's child in a public competition.
What really did happen last weekend was a championship hockey game. The kids were bantam age, 13-15 years old. The game, right from the outset, was rough with lots of hitting. There were two problems. First, a lot of the kids involved had never been taught to bodycheck properly. They were charging, boarding and hitting their opponents in the head. One kid emerged with a concussion after being run.
The second problem was the officiating. Despite the borderline hitting, there were no major penalties called. One team began to get bolder, taking further liberties. The other began to react out of frustration, hitting back. A young and relatively inexperienced linesman compared what he'd been taught about the rules (including a no-tolerance, automatic penalty policy for hits to the head, even through incidental contact) and what was actually going on during the game, and he skated off the ice, quitting the game several minutes before the final horn sounded. He'd been asking the ref to crack down and take control, but got no response. So, fearing a serious injury for some player, he called it a night. And all the while, parents from both sides were yelling and berating both the officials and the opposing players. That played a role in the linesman's decision to walk away as well.
There is something significantly the matter within minor hockey in this country. Parents who would never dream of screaming at a child playing the piano on stage think nothing of doing the same thing to children on a hockey rink. Some parents (who are often the coaches as well) think the four walls of the hockey arena places their behaviour somehow above the rules of civility and decency we expect to govern our actions in the rest of our lives. The question is why this happens.
Going to the source, you get various answers from parents. Some say it has to do with the accessibility of the pro game to kids and coaches. Whereas, not so many years ago, the NHL was something kids secretly dreamed about while they watched their heroes on Saturday nights, now every big-league game is easily available on TV. Young players see guys from their own town, or the next town over, making it big and their dreams change from simple childhood fantasies to serious career plans. Many times, the change is fostered by the parents who dream NHL dreams even before their children are old enough to do the same.
Other parents say they get carried away by the emotion of the game or the behaviour of opposing teams. They get angry if they think their kids are being shafted by bad officiating. Sometimes tension builds and tempers fray. Recently, I spoke with Fred Greening, whose son, Colin, plays for the Ottawa Senators. He told an amusing story of sitting with parents who were getting a little too wrapped up in the politics of minor hockey ice time and coaching. Greening (who marvels at the idea of putting pressure on kids about hockey) said, impatiently, "Listen, none of these kids are going to make the NHL anyway, so why does everyone get so worked up?" He might have been off-base about his own kid, ironically, but the sentiment was honest. Most boys never come close to an NHL career, but they can learn co-operation and teamwork and make life-long memories if they're let play the game for fun.
The result of bullying behaviour from the stands and behind the benches...and even inadvertently from "old school" officials who say they don't want to interfere too much and "just let them play"...should be a real worry for Hockey Canada. Players are leaving the game because their parents don't want them to risk injury, or because they abhor the ridiculous behaviour of others in the stands. They're leaving because the players themselves have had enough and don't like the feeling of playing with fear, or the frustration of coping with unchecked violence that prohibits them from playing a more skilled game. They're turning to soccer or basketball, or music video games or art instead. A Toronto Star article published last January says only 572 000 kids were registered in minor hockey, down 200 000 from its peak. Officials anticipate losing another 200 000 in the next decade. Some cautious parents aren't signing kids up for hockey at all. Others are leaving the game after they witness some of the behaviour in the rinks.
An even more serious problem might be with the young officials involved in these games. They are often players or former players who decide to try their hands at reffing or working the lines for a change of pace and a few bucks. They take the time to train for the role, and they usually work the games under the guidance of an experienced official. It's tough enough for them to follow the game, remember all the rules and react appropriately without dealing with the rage from the stands. Any provincial hockey association will tell you it's not a problem to attract young officials and train them. The difficulty is in keeping them. The Calgary Minor Hockey Association says a typical year sees a 50% turnover in its referees. A third of all minor hockey officials in New Brunswick quit each season. In Saskatchewan, about 40% of their officials throw in the towel every year. In almost every province, the number-one reason given by those who quit is the seriousness of verbal abuse from the stands and from coaches.
The constant turnover of officials hurts the game. It means the more experienced referees and linesmen needed to control the games of teen aged players are getting fewer, and many of those quitting are high-quality officials. That can leave younger, more inexperienced or not as talented people in charge of games that can get out of hand without firm enforcement of the rules. In BC, in 2005, three young refs quit because of threats of physical violence from the stands. After that, for every 50 new people joining the officiating ranks, 50 older refs and linesmen quit. The problem isn't going away.
The young linesman in this story was ready to quit hockey entirely when he left the ice on the weekend. His referee disappointed him by letting too much violence go unpenalized and by losing control of the game. He told parents he was sickened by what was happening on the ice and in the stands. Now, his minor hockey association is trying to convince him to give it another shot in an effort to keep a promising young official in the system. He may or may not decide to stick around.
Parents and coaches screaming at a hockey rink need to stop and listen to themselves. Then they need to ask whether they'd stand up and shout what they're saying to a young opposing hockey player or official on the ice to a performer in the middle of a concert hall. If they wouldn't, they need to sit down and shut up. Their big mouths and ridiculous behaviour are driving young people away from the game, and hockey can only be worse for that.