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In minor hockey, stupid is as stupid does

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If you have a son or daughter in hockey, you will likely come across this video sometime in the next few days. It shows a Selkirk hockey dad, Jason Boyd, infant child in arms, protesting a penalty against his 15-year-old son in a game at Southdale arena.

Boyd's son delivers a violent hit along the boards against a much smaller opponent, and is assessed a penalty for making contact to the head. As soon as the referee raises his arm signalling a penalty, Boyd launches into a diatribe, complaining that it was unfair to penalize his son for hitting a smaller opponent that he refers to several times as a "midget." His outburst draws the ire of a parent from the other team who has a video camera and the father of the smaller player left motionless on the ice. It is during this outburst that Boyd several times threatens to "cave in" the eyeglasses worn by the other father. 

The video, posted on several video sharing sites, has obviously become a hot topic of conversation.  Perhaps realizing his indefensible position, Boyd issued an apology to those he verbally abused at the rink. He also indicated he would abide by the terms of a rink ban that will keep him away from his son's games throughout the remainder of this season. 

Boyd focused his apology on his deplorable behavior, blaming it in part on the heat and emotion of the moment. That is the convenient cop-out when someone loses their cool while attending a minor hockey game. Unfortunately, a lack of self-control is not really Boyd's major problem. His big flaw, shared by a gross majority of hockey parents in this country, is that he knows nothing about the rules of hockey.

The hit his son delivered was a penalty. In fact, it might have been the easiest call that referee made the entire game. The larger player comes from across the ice to deliver the hit along the boards. The puck is long gone by the time he delivers his hit. Being larger, he finishes up and through the head of the smaller player, before landing right on top of him. It was excessive, dangerous and a prime example of what Hockey Canada is trying to take out of the game with its new rules on contact to the head.

Notwithstanding all this context, Boyd is incredulous that his son would be penalized just for hammering a smaller opponent. At one point, Boyd shouts out, "It's a penalty for a head shot because your kid is small?" When he is told by bystanders that is the exact reason the penalty is called, Boyd says dismissively, "It's a big man's game."

Boyd is wrong on just about every point. Hockey Canada's head contact rule describes in explicit detail how any blow by any part of one player to another player's head is a penalty. Depending on the referee's assessment of intent and the gravity of the force of the blow, it can be two minutes, four minutes, a five-minute major with a game misconduct or a match penalty with a game misconduct. The point is that deliberate contact to the head, which was the case in this head, is an easy call. In fact, after watching the video several times, the referee could have easily called a major penalty for boarding.

The rules implication for larger players is the same regardless of age or level of hockey: If you're a bigger player, it's on you to ensure that when a check has been delivered, no contact is made to the head, the numbers, and that you do not drive an opponent into the boards in a particularly violent manner. 

How Boyd could not know this is hard to explain. Given that his son is 15, Boyd could have been in and around minor hockey for at least a decade. In addition, there has been enormous media attention paid to the issue of concussions, and the reasons for introducing new rules to limit contact to the head.

Hockey Canada has provided fantastic online resources in a bid to demystify the head shot rule, including a series of video clips that show exactly when a penalty should be called. The images are taken from actual minor hockey games. You get to see each clip three or four times, including in slow motion, before the video reveals the specific penalty that should be called. It's very illuminating.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit there is frustration right now about interpretation of the head shot rule at ice level. And yet, as an adult, you would think that it is hard to argue with the intent. Not so for parents like Boyd, who clearly do contest the whole intent of these and other rules designed to keep body contact within reasonable limits. Really, as adults, wouldn't we welcome 100 iffy penalties for head contract if it prevents even one serious head injury? 

More importantly, however, is that it is the responsibility of adults - whether they be coaches or parents in the stands - to emphasize the importance of playing within the rules of the game, especially when it comes to dangerous play.

In the wake of this deplorable incident, hockey's governing bodies including Hockey Winnipeg, have said they will double their efforts to get parents to adhere to the principles of the Respect in Sport program, which all team officials are required to complete as part of certification. RIS preaches pretty basic respect and deference for everyone involved in the game. And while that may help, perhaps the more important gesture would be to require parents to go through a mandatory tutorial on the rules of hockey.

While coaching or watching games from the stands, I am constantly amazed at the lack of understanding of the basic rules of hockey. Three different people may have three different assessments of whether a play should result in a penalty. However, we're not allowed to use different rule interpretations to justify our assessment.

Hardly anyone really knows when a stick check becomes a trip, when a back check becomes a hook, when a body check is boarding, or even simple matters like offsides and icings. That does not, however, prevent them from howling in protest when they believe a penalty has been missed or assessed unfairly. You can find a copy of the 2012-14 Hockey Canada rule book here. It is well worth the read, and does not take that much time to go through.

Along with the rules, the culture of the game needs a complete overhaul. With every season, we are provided with evidence in the form of horrific incidents of violence, injury and abuse that we have lost our ability to maintain some civility in the game. We need to think differently about the context of the game. In short, we need a higher moral standard. 

Next week, playoffs start for most teams in Winnipeg. If you have a child in hockey, take the time to study up on the rules. Otherwise, in this age of video-enabled smart phones and instant video uploads, you may find yourself as the latest poster boy or girl for abject ignorance.

POST SCRIPT -- informed last night by Hockey Winnipeg that the smaller player who was hammered in the video was, later in that same game, the victim of a hit from behind that left him with a broken arm.

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