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The Future of Ice Hockey: What Kind of Game Do We Want?

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What kind of game do we want ice hockey to be? Do we want a very physical game with lots of hitting from behind and head contact or do we want the game we once had, a game of skill and respect along with legal physical play?

The game of ice hockey has not always been played as it is now. Checking was not permitted by attacking players in the offensive zone until the mid 1970’s. The center red line created another point that slowed the game down a bit and there was no tag-up offsides, so defensemen actually had to learn some skills to survive in neutral ice until their linemates got back onside.

All of these rule changes were designed to speed up the game, and it is now much faster than it was. Faster means more energy to transfer on impact. That is OK as long at the impacts occur within the rule book. Unfortunately, many do not.

Granted, hockey is a tough physical game, even when played within the rules.  But big tough players at 11-12 years old or even high school aren't essential. We should want kids who are athletic and play the game for the skill and beauty of the sport. We should want kids who respect the game, their opponents, officials, teammates and themselves.

Some tell me that these are unrealistic goals in today's sports culture. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be striving towards them. Ninety-five percent of our youth players will be done playing by the age of 16 years old. That means they will play for about 10 years and then find other things to do. Less than 1 percent will play above the high school level, and the ones who play college hockey are terrific athletes and have lots of skills for the game, not typically the big hit guys.  

How we arrived at where we are today, with all of its checks from behind, boarding and head contact, has taken many years.  Each year over the past 15 years the game has become more and more about hitting, interfering, intimidation, and trash-talking opponents. After-whistle pushing and shoving, and even post-game brawls have become an all-too-frequent occurrence. As a high school coach for the past 9 years, I have become increasingly alarmed at the growing number of concussions our players are suffering.  Most of the contact that led to concussions was illegal, and occurred away from the puck; blind side hits designed to injure.

But change may be on the way.  As a result of the tragic injuries suffered by Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette in early January, the silent majority has final spoken up and insisted on a better type of game. As I have previously reported, the Minnesota High School League responded with increased penalties for head contact, checking from behind and boarding violations.  Instead of minor penalties, all are supposed to receive major penalties for 5 minutes, plus misconducts if warranted. Minnesota Hockey likewise responded by increasing the penalties for checks from behind and boarding, the latter a rarely called penalty, but not for hits to the head. 

Why Minnesota Hockey failed to more harshly penalize head contact, however, confused me, because it is unquestionably the biggest problem in high school and youth hockey. Concussions occur every day during the winter and yet head contact infractions are rarely called, even now. In our game tonight, for instance, I counted at least six hits to the head that were textbook penalties, and yet only one was called, and even that was only a two-minute minor. My conversations with hockey referees normally end with, “We are all learning” and most of the time, I think it is true. I also understand that the games are moving fast and referees will not see every infraction.  But I do not understand why the calls are not made when the infraction occurs right in front of them. It is bewildering to say the least. Okay, refs are good guys, we need you and love you but we really need you to make the calls every time until we get the game we love back.

It will take time.  They will be a learning curve for all participants, whether they be player, coach, or referee, and it may take several years to achieve the goal of making hockey a game of skill and speed again. Coaches need to do a better job of teaching players the right way to bodycheck and how to absorb contact. It cannot be taught in a two-day clinic; it needs to be an important part of regular practices, and consistent messaging from coaches to players is required.

The language we use needs to change, Instead of "hit him" maybe words like “zero gap’ “take him” or “box him/her out” might be better. Language is a funny thing in that words have power and meaning beyond what might be intended. Coaches need to choose their words carefully with young people.

As the current hockey season draws to a close, we all need to step back and take a deep breath as we look forward to next season. Refs, coaches, parents and players all need to learn a slightly new way to play, officiate and watch this game, and it will be a better game when we get there. It will take time but we will get there.

Kids play hockey for fun, to be with friends, get exercise, learn new athletic skills and learn life skills modeled by the coaches and parents. Let’s be sure we are all teaching the players the right values and make sure that they are enjoying themselves. Nobody ever came to the rink to work hard; they come to play hard. And they certainly do not remember who won after a few years.