No more body-checking in PeeWee… So what?

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Today the Hockey Canada board of directors voted to eliminate body-checking from all PeeWee hockey (both “A” and “C”). This ban has been championed by many intelligent hockey minds nationwide over the past several years. Despite a large amount of popular opposition to the ban, the combination of statistics on concussions and almost a decade of personal experience watching and officiating PeeWee “A” hockey makes it difficult to argue the wisdom of this decision. PeeWee players are, by and large, lousy hitters. They hit with their hands, their elbows, their sticks, they leave their feet, and its amazing that there aren’t more injuries.

As someone who played body contact hockey for seven years and has officiated some of the highest-level body contact hockey in Canada, I can unequivocally state that it is possible to play a fast, skilled, tough, physical hockey game and not throw a single body-check. I don’t believe that we will ever see professional hockey without body-checking, but the idea that it must be included at all levels of minor hockey because the professionals do it is absurd.

However, passing this resolution is not enough; the resolution itself is meaningless unless Hockey Canada understands the responsibility they have to ensure that Bantam “A” does not become PeeWee “A” plus testosterone. If this is allowed to happen, injuries among Bantam-aged players will spike dramatically and it will be far worse than it ever was with PeeWee-aged players. So what will make the difference between success and failure for this measure?

Officials always play a role in the safety of players, and they will continue to play a role here. Training officials to understand the purpose of the rules regarding head contact and checking from behind and how they must be stringently enforced is always important for officiating instructors and mentors. But behind the officials are the regional, provincial, and national bodies which suspends players based on the referee’s calls. In that capacity, governing bodies at all levels must do more across the board in terms of suspensions to impress upon players that illegal body-checks will not be tolerated. At this time, Hockey Canada, BC Hockey, and PCAHA only have automatic one-game suspensions for checks from behind and head contact if a major penalty is assessed; those measures would be laughable if they weren’t terrifying. Not only should minor penalties for checking from behind carry automatic suspensions, but accumulations of minor penalties for head contact warrant suspension, and when major penalties are assessed for either infraction, a three game suspension should be the absolute minimum. But all this talk of punishment is secondary, and its a distraction from the true question of how to reduce injuries caused by body-checking in minor hockey.

The answer, as usual, is coaching. Hockey Canada must create a mandatory coaching curriculum to be directed at players entering the Bantam age group and intending to try out for an “A” team. Proper body checking technique can not be learned by watching hockey on TV, nor can it be learned in one or two on-ice practices. There needs to be a standardized, multi-session program, with both on and off-ice ice instruction that emphasizes not only how to body-check but the purpose of body-checking and where on the ice to make a check. It is only through coaching that we can hope to reduce serious injuries in minor hockey.

Ricardo Portillo

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He may have refereed soccer, but he was one of us; one of the fraternity of men and women who shouldered the task of enforcing the rules of the game we love, whatever that game may be. Ricardo Portillo died Saturday from a brain injury sustained after being punched by a teenaged goalkeeper after Ricardo showed him a yellow card. According to Ricardo’s daughter, she and her siblings begged him to stop officiating because she feared this type of violence; but he refused. He couldn’t give up what he loved to do.

If you’re like me, you can’t imagine a life without officiating. Its more than a job, more than a hobby, more than a passion – its who you are; its why you get out of bed in the morning, and you’re never happier than when you’re refereeing a game. The boos, the criticism, the thrown drinks, the screaming; you’re willing to endure all of it to do what you love. And you can’t explain why, but you wouldn’t trade it for anything. We sign the contract and promise to do our very best every day to enforce the rules of the game fairly and safely. If you’re an official, you take that oath seriously; you accept the responsibilities and authorities that come with it and your integrity means everything. Every official has a catalogue of stories about times when they were abused verbally or even physically; we swap stories and laugh at the absurdity of what some people will do over a call that we’ve made. But one story like Ricardo’s, or Dutch Assistant Referee Richard Nieuwenhuizen’s (d. 12 December, 2012), immediately stops the laughter – it happened to him, and it could happen to any one of us. But I would never allow that to force me to quit officiating. It has been the centre of my life when I had nothing else, and I could never turn my back on that; and neither could Ricardo or Richard.

The default reaction of nearly every player, coach, or fan who believes that they’ve been the victim of a poor call is to scream, and shout, and jump up and down. And if you happen to be on the ice, or the field, or the court, you get right in that official’s face and you tell them what a terrible call they just made. That is the default response. The minimum. So what is a step up from that? Throwing things? I’ve had water bottles, half a clipboard, and a garbage can thrown at me. I’ve been spat on. It’s not a stretch to imagine physical violence occurring in any one of those situations.

This is not confined to soccer, nor is it confined to youth sports. No matter what sports this young goalkeeper has watched growing up, he’s seen examples of this behaviour in every single game. In the NHL, NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS, EPL, you name it; it happens every day. From coaches and players, and always from fans; in this young man’s mind, it is completely reasonable for him to scream in the referee’s face if he feels the referee has made a poor call. So when he loses his temper, he takes the next step; and in this case, the next step cost Ricardo his life.

As a referee, I’ve seen hundreds of coaches, and I’ve also had eight different [head] coaches in my playing career. One of my Atom coaches was a perfect example of this supposedly acceptable behaviour; he would lean over the boards and scream at twelve to fifteen year-old officials if he thought they had made a mistake. Once, he confronted the teenage referee in a rage after a game because the third period was shortened to twelve minutes instead of fifteen due to time constraints. On the other hand, one coach that I continue to hold in the highest esteem was the coach of my Midget A2 team, Tim Roux. I played for Tim for a season and only once did he lose his temper with the referee. How did I know Tim had lost his temper? He shouted “come on!” at the referee. He hadn’t said a word up to that point, and he didn’t say another word for the rest of the game. That was Tim losing his temper. Tim is the gold standard of how all players, coaches, parents, and fans should behave.

Sports are emotional; we invest in them as players and coaches and fans, we all lose our temper at one time or another. We can’t control how we feel, but we can control how we respond; our actions define us. If the default response to a poor call is a quiet, respectful word with the referee, in which opinions are exchanged, then the occasional loss of one’s temper will involve shouting and intimidation. That’s acceptable. But as long as the default response is shouting and intimidation, losing one’s temper could cost an official his life. That is not acceptable. We as a sports society need to change how we allow ourselves to react during games. Players, if you see a teammate losing his temper with the referee, step in and calm them down. Coaches, if you see one of your players losing his temper with the referee, make it known that that sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated on your team. Managers and association executives, if you see a coach losing his temper with the referee, make it known that that sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated within your organization. Parents, if you see your children losing their temper with the referee, step in and remind them that this is not acceptable behaviour. It is not acceptable behaviour.

Each one of us plays a part in shaping our sports culture no matter what we do; so let’s go forward shaping it for the better. And do it because Ricardo Portillo, 46 years old, from Salt Lake City, died on 4 May 2012, doing what he loved.