I eavesdrop in ice hockey rinks, in sports bars, and I listen in on conversations that happen in the grocery line. I lurk in chat rooms and listen to radio programs that deal with the hottest issues having to do with sports.
I’m listening for the bigger picture. The one that portrays some sort of societal commentary that plays out in the microcosm of a game.
In the wake of Jack Jablonski’s injury, (and most certainly before the injury too) I would hear things like…”Hockey is for goons.” and “Violence in sport is what people pay to see,” and you can’t play hockey without fighting…or checking,” and “it’s too bad my kid probably won’t be able to play hockey by the time he is fourteen…he won’t be big enough to check well.”
What I hear in these comments is that youth sports mimic professional sports too closely. People may be willing to pay for violence (like an “R”-rated movie) but until kids are old enough to even attend those violent movies, they should not be allowed to play a game in such a violent way. Fourteen is too young to be excluded from a kids game…that is unless it’s not intended to be a kids’ game anyway.
I know there are some hockey purists out there who think like I do, and who believe that hockey can absolutely exist without fighting, even at the NHL-level. If anything has saved my marriage to my college-hockey-coaching husband it is that he and I have agreed to disagree about our philosophies on this subject.
Checking is an entirely different ball of wax, however. Legal checking is absolutely a part of the game of hockey. It is a form of physical contact that moves the game to another level of intensity and strategy, and it is as necessary as tackling is to football. It needs to be taught well and implemented efficiently.
Hal Tearse, the Coach in Chief of Minnesota Hockey, explains it beautifully in the recent enewsletter sent to all Minnesota hockey families. He distinguishes between a “hit” and a “check”. Hitting is for intimidation…momentum shifting…and taking good players not only off the puck, but sometimes out of the game. My addition…(if they are not physically hurt in a hit, the hits are an attempt to take them out mentally)
Intimidation works, and I can hear the “Hockey players are goons” proponents nodding their heads in adamant agreement.
Hockey has goons, but the declaration that all hockey players are goons is incredibly misinformed. The goons (at least in the NHL) are often there to protect the smaller, more skilled players, and there has yet to be a shift in hockey culture to deem them unnecessary. That is the pros though.
There are goons in every sport, however, and they are often the biggest, strongest and meanest among us. Goons in football stand over the sacked quarterback, or the returning punt-returner, that they have just leveled, and get cheered for delivering blows with incredible brute force.
Maybe the problem is not the goons, but rather the fans who cheer for them. The money we throw at them to be big and strong and brutal is enough to motivate anyone to foster that in the kids with goon potential.
Young athletes watch what the rest of us watch, and they hear what the rest of us hear. Goons are valued. What else explains a high school basketball player throwing his weight around (literally) in one of the most brutal displays of goonism (totally made up word) I’ve ever seen.
The problem is that our culture tolerates goons, and hockey seems to have a system in place that breeds them early and reinforces their behavior too regularly.
So, what do we do about it? Here is my never-having-played-hockey-but-watched-a-million-games idea:
Let kids check the kids their own size.
Contact sports should be separated by weight…until everyone has grown up enough to decide to put themselves in the mix with the big boys. Football has heavy-weight and light-weight teams in middle-school and wrestlers are brilliant enough to know that wrestling in a weight class is the safest and fairest way for wrestlers to compete.
So why isn’t there a weight-class distinction for checking hockey players? At least while the kids are going through maturation and at the ages when puberty is so varied among them.
As you might have guessed, my disclaimer about this proposal is due in large part to the fact that our oldest hockey player, an 11-year-old boy, is one who will NEVER be a goon. Not only is that behavior not tolerated in our house, but he has also been straining on the scale for over six months now to finally weigh in at 80 pounds, (and that was with his wet towel tied around his waist!)
I know he’s worried about what checking is going to mean for him, when it starts in a year-and-a-half. (He was relieved when the checking age was moved to the next level).
He doesn’t want to say he is afraid, but he has collided with bigger players, and he knows it doesn’t feel great. There is a line I tread as a mother of a small hockey player. I tell him there is value in being tough, and there is value in being smart enough to stay out of the way. The problem with hockey, is that there are instances, when it doesn’t matter if you are tough and smart…one-hundred pounds makes a big difference when two bodies collide. (Especially if the 100-extra-pounds are hell bent on taking you out)
I think by the time boys turn into men and they know what sacrifices they are making by setting themselves out there to physically collide with another (bigger) player, they are consciously choosing to put themselves in harm’s way. My issue with the current state of checking, and the cultural support of goonism, is that the sport my kids love isn’t safe long enough to protect them from the goons among us.
My kids love to skate…they love the workout that hockey provides for them…and just because they are not big enough to deliver big blows yet, they shouldn’t be closing in on a time to make a decision about whether the game is worth the risk they take playing it.
Copyright 2012 Choosing to Grow
If you want to learn more about Meagan, or her current For the Sport of It book project, visit her at her website: www.meaganfrank.com.