Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Hockey Life: One simple rule

If you've ever been in a hockey locker room, as a player, coach or a parent, you'll know what I mean. Those places, and it doesn't matter where, are, quite simply, an assault to some of our senses. And that's not a good thing.

First and foremost, most every hockey locker room stinks. Not being blunt. No, just being honest. Between the lingering scent of a washdown in bleach or the aromatic aftermath of sweat-filled hockey bags, the smell filling nasal passages is, in a word, nasty.

It's no surprise, too, that locker rooms can get loud. From pregame pump-up music to the celebratory whoops and whistles of a hard-fought victory, it takes mere minutes to leave ears ringing. Not nearly as bad as the stench, mind you, but enough to resonate, if you will, for hours.

Yes, locker rooms can be downright funky, rowdy places. Locker rooms, no matter the sport, must be one other thing, too: a safe environment.

Beyond the camaraderie and the respect that comes with being teammates, the locker room is home. It's a place to feel safe and, without hesitation, a place to let down your guard. Just like you'd feel with your family. You shouldn't have to worry about being humiliated or worse by a teammate. And, yet, it happens.

Thankfully, especially when it comes to youth sports, there are rules and programs in place to shield participants, no matter the age, from these concerns. USA Hockey, the governing body of the sport here in the states, is no exception. Just this year, it approved guidelines, in its SafeSport Program, to deal with locker room behavior.

Really, you'd think that these rules wouldn't need to be put in print. There are just some incidents that common sense, no matter the age, would keep from happening. Still, though, there's the reality of life. Some people, no matter their age, will choose to not practice common sense and, honestly, the basics of being a good teammate and a decent human being.

That's where coaches come in.

Everyone knows being a coach is a thankless position. Coaches, who often serve this position in a volunteer capacity, have to also be parents, teachers, counselors, psychologists, taskmasters and chauffeurs. You name it, a coach has likely filled that role. To me, though, providing and maintaining a safe and non-hostile environment would be one of the most important duties for any coach.

Given all of the good that can take place in a locker room, there are also unfortunate instances and illegal incidents that can occur with the confines. That's why USA Hockey, in its SafeSport program, mandates that a coach or a screened adult (someone who has gone through a background check and has been cleared by the organization or team) must be in the locker room when players are present.

From the SafeSport program's handbook, specifically the top of page 10:

"It is the policy of USA Hockey that all USA Hockey Member Programs have at least one responsible screened adult present directly monitoring the locker room during all team events to assure that only participants (coaches and players), approved team personnel and family members are permitted in the locker room and to supervise the conduct in the locker room. Any individual meetings between a minor participant and a coach or other adult in a locker room shall require that a second responsible adult is present. The responsible adult that monitors and supervises the locker room shall have been screened in compliance with Section III of this Handbook."

Pretty straightforward, isn't it? It's not a guideline. It's a policy. And that makes it an unbending rule.

Part of being a coach is knowing and following the rules, and not just ones pertaining to hockey. To me, it's also upon an organization, be it its board of directors or its youth program director, to make sure any and all rules, policies or guidelines are followed.

Following this one simple rule -- one that, really, is dripping in common sense -- certainly would eliminate any opportunity for foolishness, wouldn't it? I certainly think so. Sadly, though, it doesn't happen all of the time. Even worse, some player -- most often a kid -- usually pays the price.

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