Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Hockey Life: On my soapbox

Hockey, at any level, is a physical game. There's no doubt about that. From open-ice checks to scrums along the boards, hockey players, at any level, will get and receive more than their fair share of bumps and bruises. It's a part of the game.

What isn't, though, are hits that significantly increase the potential for a player, no matter the level, to get injured. Hitting from behind, one of the more dangerous plays in the sport, is exactly what I'm talking about.

If memory serves, there was a big push, not all that long ago, to eliminate hitting from behind. Hockey is physical enough that senseless hits like this, intentional or not, don't need to be a part of the game. To this day, I occasionally see jerseys with a red stop sign emblem centered across the backs of shoulders.

Apparently, that ploy, nor the concept behind it, hasn't sunk in with everyone.

In the second of Colin's games yesterday, he got absolutely crushed into the boards when not one, but two players hit him from behind just as he was releasing a pass up the ice. No penalty was called. From where I was sitting, and because he is my son, I found that hard to believe.

Granted, he could have gotten rid of the puck a little sooner, as his coach correctly explained to him. And, as he has been told before, his shoulders need to be perpendicular, not parallel, to the boards. In this case, his shoulders were diagonal, enough so that both players were able to catch a piece of him from behind.

Still, the bigger issue, I believe, is the inconsistent approach taken by referees employed by the Central Florida Hockey League. In the first game, one player, one of the bigger on Colin's team, was penalized four times for boarding or hitting in some fashion. The first one was, I have to admit, deserved. The others? I'm not so sure. They looked like clean, solid movements while battling for the puck. Obviously, this pair of referees thought otherwise.

In Colin's case, with a different set of referees, the hit, which sent him head- and shoulder-first into the boards, wasn't seen as a penalty. Sadly, it happened within clear view of one, no more than 10 to 20 feet away. Hence, the inconsistency. I thought that maintaining player safety is part of a referee's job.

To me, there's one way to eliminate these hits from behind. Penalize each and every one, with no regard to intent. Rather than a 90-second penalty, make it three minutes. Taking it a step further, repeated violations, throughout a season and not just a game, should bring progressive penalties. The second time a player is called for hitting from behind should bring a five-minute penalty. A third brings an ejection and a one-game suspension. A fourth, well, enjoy your view from the stands, buddy.

Now, that would send a message.

To say that I'm taking sole exception here today to Colin, or any other player, getting hit from behind would be, in a word, incorrect. Just like a Ronco commercial, where for the next 30 minutes, the next 100 callers get a bonus, there's more. Much more. And this, my friends, is where I'm going to step on some toes.

The game in which Colin got rocked occurred against an all-girls team. And before some of you get your undies in a bunch, I have absolutely no problem with girls playing hockey. Never have. Never will. To me, that's one of the best things about watching our sport, knowing that it's available to anyone to play.

Since Colin started playing organized hockey, he has had at least one female teammate on his squads. And he has been taught, from day one, not to look at them simply as girls, but as respected teammates. In fact, he grew quite fond of one.

So, just to make sure that my point is absolutely clear, we have no issues with girls playing hockey. What we have an issue with, though, is when special rules are granted to an all-girls team that, in this case, led to Colin nearly being seriously injured.

Here in the states, divisions are based on age groups and skill level. In our case, Colin, at 11 years old, plays as a peewee in the A, or lowest, level. We don't have an issue with that, either. As a result, we expect him to play against other 11- and 12-year-old kids at roughly the same skill level. Sounds fair, right?

Unfortunately, that's not the case with this one "special" team. It's allowed to have players up to 14 years old on its roster. For those who don't know, 13- and 14-year-olds are considered bantam players.

With this team, a decision was made by CFHL officials, I guess, to allow the inclusion of older, and as a result, bigger players on its roster. One reason? According to one parent, who has a daughter on the team, it was because it wouldn't have had enough to field as close to a full lineup (at least two lines and two sets of defense) as it could get. So, older players were allowed to, as she put it, "play down," a move endorsed by USA Hockey.

I'm sorry, I don't agree with that reasoning. By allowing that to happen, this team, which draws from throughout Florida, has players who are more physically mature (at least 4 to 5 inches taller and upwards of at least 30 to 40 pounds heavier) than the average peewee player. Skill-level aside, and that team does have a couple of solid players, that's neither fair nor reasonable.

Also, this particular mother said this special exemption was allowed because female players have a tendency to get pushed around by boys in bantam-level games. She specifically mentioned broken collarbones as the result of this mismatch. Ironically, that's what nearly happened to Colin when he got tagged by the two female players, who both appeared older than 12 years of age and were significantly heavier than him.

I won't make any apologies for this, but peewee players, no matter the gender, need to play against peewee players. Same, too, for bantams, mini mites or whomever. There's a reason why these age brackets are in place. Sure, the potential for injury exists at any level. But to slant the playing field -- a rink in this case -- to accommodate a certain gender is unreasonable, sets up unrealistic expectations later in life and, as we can attest, dangerous.

To me, if a team can't field enough players to fill an age-specific roster, it has no business playing in a travel-team league. I'm thinking a majority of these girls tried out for other teams and, for whatever reason, didn't make the cut. So, rather than have their children play at the recreational, in-house level, it's my guess that a group of parents, as well-intentioned as they may believe themselves to be, let their egos get the best of them.

Sadly, one dangerous play shows the ridiculousness of more than the CFHL's decision.


  1. This is a great read. It really made me think.

    I'm curious to know how old the refs are. Or maybe a better question is how experienced are the refs?

    I know that for the two years that I ump'd my niece's fastpitch games, the learning curve was huge. I know without question that I made mistakes out there, but the top priority for me was to keep the girls safe and to try my best.

    Did I know the rulebook inside and out? Nope. But I'm sure that if I had continued with umpiring, I would have improved.

    The pressure to "get it right" from some coaches out there just completely turned me off of umpiring. The girls were 11-13 and the expectation placed on me by some coaches was to be perfect and to know everything. It's a shame since getting carded umps are tougher by the year - and new, younger faces in the officiating ranks is a terribly tough draw.

    I'm not defending refs out there that are neglectful or just flat out don't care, but I do think that (much like the players on the field or ice) the officials need a place to hone their skills.

    I think the coaches play a huge role in this process. They have the ability to effectively (and respectfully) communicate to the refs any and all concerns pertaining to player safety, consistency in calling a game and ultimately helping them learn the game from a number of different perspectives.

    I think officiating in this day and age is a thankless job and I cringe at the thought of "running out of officials" because nobody wants to take up the cause.

    Again - great read.

  2. In his first game, the refs were late teens to early 20s. The refs in his second game were older. One was about 30 and the other about 45 to 50. He has played in games where the refs are under 15.

    All any coach, parent or players asks for is consistency within and between each game. These two games showed the opposite ends of the spectrum.

    1. I agree. And the negative effects of inconsistency become painfully obvious when you get that huge pendulum swing.

      What do you thInk is the best way to combat this issue? There must be some older refs who are knee deep in habits (both good and bad) and there also must me those who are just getting an introduction to the world of officiating.

  3. The fix has to be two-fold. Referees need to be graded by supervisors on their efforts. Not saying every game, but they shouldn't receive word when it's going to happen. That way, they're on their toes every game.

    Those who consistently grade low have to go through refresher courses before working more games. Pair refs who grade well with younger or under-performing refs.

    Good work should be rewarded. Bad work shows the need for more education. In doing so, you open the door for more refs, young or old, to get into the pipeline. In time, the bad ones are weeded out.

    Most likely easier said than done.

    1. Yes. Having an experienced official assist the up-and-comers both on the field of play as well as during clinics, training sessions and all is not just invaluable - but critical.

      Being "thrown in the fire" with little knowledge of what to expect is not what an official should be subjected to.

      I do think that officials (much like players) who are starting out need to use game experience as an arena to hone their skills, but it can't be the only place to do so.

      I agree, easier said than done. I hope for the future crop of players that there will be adequate numbers and skill levels of refs.

      It's amazing how a quality official can seem invisible on the field of play. Equally amazing is the obviousness of a sub-par ref. Sticks out like a sore thumb.