In 2008, three hockey coaches from Orono, Ont., were given conditional sentences for threatening three referees following a game the previous season. The coaches, all in their early 20s, were upset about the outcome of a game and followed the officials to the parking lot of the arena where they showered them with expletives and threats of physical abuse.
The coaches were initially charged with the serious criminal act of uttering threats to cause bodily harm. They eventually pleaded to the less serious charge of creating a public disturbance and were sentenced to one year of probation and community service. The crimes these coaches committed were bad, but not as bad as the response from hockey officialdom.
Despite all the media attention and the fact that police were called in to investigate, their governing body initially gave the coaches nine-game suspensions. Eventually, the judge overseeing their guilty pleas banned them from being coaches or volunteers in any capacity in minor hockey for the duration of their probations.
The Orono case is proof that when it comes to abusive conduct, hockey would prefer to overlook, rationalize, forgive and forget. A nine-game suspension? A one-year ban? It's hard to believe anyone outside hockey seriously believes these three men should be allowed to coach again. Hockey disagreed.
The Orono story came to mind this week when word came of an ugly scene in the dressing room of the Neepawa Natives, a member of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL). Following an investigation into hazing allegations, the league suspended 16 players, an assistant coach and the head coach/general manager.
Hazing is an ancient tradition that, despite its notoriety and recent consensus that it is extremely destructive, continues to exist in sports, post-secondary education and even the workplace. It is a form of bullying and often involves acts that go well over the line into forms of criminal assault, even sexual assault. Details of the Neepawa Natives' hazing ritual are just trickling out, but what we know to date is not good.
However, it is not the hazing itself, but rather hockey's response to the allegations that has quickly become the focus of this story. The MJHL took swift action: A full investigation was undertaken, discipline handed out and condemnations were uttered. However, many observers are left wondering if all that adds up to an adequate response to a worrisome incident like this?
For the most part, hockey people believe what happens on the ice or in the stands, dressing rooms or connecting hallways typically stays in those venues. Although there are a few high-profile cases where criminal charges have resulted, the gross majority of grievous hockey incidents are overlooked, covered up, or explained away as acts committed in the heat of the moment. Behaviour that would typically result in a jail sentence outside a rink is regularly ignored. In this case, the RCMP are investigating the Neepawa Natives incident, although it does not appear to be at the request of the league. And that's too bad.
When you examine the league's response, it does not appear the penalties match the allegations. The stiffest suspension was five games; the majority of the players were suspended for a single game. The league has agreed to allow the team to rotate players through suspensions three at a time so it does not have to forfeit any games.
Due process is important here, as is the acknowledgement that a police investigation does not automatically mean a criminal act has taken place. Even so, the league should explain why, based on the seriousness of the allegations, the Neepawa Natives should not spend the remainder of this season in the penalty box? By allowing them to continue playing, the MJHL has shown once again that when the chips are down, hockey people will always show unreasonable, unwarranted compassion for other hockey people.
It has always been thus. In 2007, a brawl involving two teams of eight-year-olds in a Guelph, Ont., hockey tournament made national headlines. Witnesses said one of the coaches encouraged his young charges to leave the bench to enter the fray. The coach later confronted and then spat in the face of an opposing coach. The coach was suspended for one year. There have been no followup reports indicating he returned to coaching. But the important thing here is hockey was willing to let him coach again.
Like all self-policing entities, hockey at all levels is in desperate need of an objective, third party to help guide decisions on crime and punishment. Those in charge of hockey demonstrate over and over again they do not have the intestinal fortitude to do what is so desperately needed to clean up the game. Short of the sexual exploits committed by disgraced former junior hockey coach Graham James and small-time player agent and minor-hockey pariah David Frost, it's hard to figure out exactly what you have to do to be kicked out of the game forever.
Suspensions that leave the door open to a return to hockey are clearly not producing the kind of behaviour we all say we want to see in the national game. But nothing says behave like a good old-fashioned banishment.