Like the one in the rulebook

I don’t coach anymore. Never had children. And I attend most games with absolutely no interest in the outcome. So I’m not biased, I don’t yell instructions to players, or scream obscenities at referees. Not that this is a feather in my cap. I used to yell like an idiot when I coached. It just means I’m now an objective observer – a scientist.  Like … “Who’s that old geezer sitting there with ear plugs looking like he’s asleep? Hasn’t moved for a half hour. Maybe we should call 911.”

I have this ability – rare in hockey arenas – to see things many can’t.  I see both sides of an altercation, a trip or a heavy hit. I also see the incredible job the refs do, given that both sets of parents (home and away) truly believe the refs came into the arena to help their opponent. These coaches and parents are otherwise rational people, so it must be the Zamboni exhaust.

For decades I’ve seen that a traditional belief in unwritten rules doesn’t work. I’ll call it the Don Cherry theory: the “policemen” as they were called in the 1950s – “goons” later on – those who violated the written rules the most should be the ones enforcing the discipline and safety of the game. Now, that’s some real ol’ time hockey logic.

We kept hearing things like, “Let the players – not the penalties – decide the important games.” So the goons cheated more and negated the skills of better players. The referees were instructed to put the whistle in their pocket, because fans liked it rough, and the NHL had to sell tickets. So why do we impose this tradition on children, or better yet, why let children decide to continue this nonsense?

High school and youth hockey accepted this tradition, and USA Hockey, Minnesota Hockey and the Minnesota State High School League could do more than just talk about sportsmanship and a safe game. They could monitor compliance – to ensure referees call penalties such as charging and interference when forwards dump the puck in the corner, skate 100 feet at top speed and “finish their check” extra hard – after the D passes the puck. That action by a governing body would curtail the popularity of dump-chase hockey. Has anyone seen a charging call … ever?

Another simple fix: Tradition dictates that after a whistle when a goalie freezes the puck, the refs go momentarily blind and there is no limit to trash-talk, cross-checks and punches. The hostility rises after each altercation, of course, even though the Don Cherry philosophy argues that “goons” are teaching everyone to be good citizens. The best we have hoped for in the 70 years I’ve observed is that the refs call simultaneous penalties – two minutes for the goon who punched the opponent in the face and two for the punchee.

Of course two minutes is the same time the goon would rest anyway between shifts, so the simultaneous penalties mean nothing. I suggest we add a five-minute misconduct penalty to the referee’s arsenal. Officials are not anxious to hand out 10-minute penalties to a 12 year old whose parents drove across town for the game. But five-minute misconducts would restrict playing time just enough to send a lasting message. Use these shorter misconducts whenever discipline is needed or a penalty is intentionally over the top.

Right now, because of the Don Cherry tradition, DISCIPLINE IS IN THE HANDS OF THE CHILDREN, NOT THE ADULTS. Forget the NHL.This is about youth and high school hockey. It’s about enforcing the rulebook and making the game more skillful and safe.