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Unruly adults responsible for on-ice mayhem

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When the puck drops, who is responsible for controlling the game?

That question has taken on new importance in the wake of a truly ugly incident last weekend at an unsanctioned hockey tournament in Winnipeg.

Simply put, this was a prime example of what happens when athletics and anarchy collide.

It started when a referee tried to stop a fight between two 12-year-olds. The referee grabbed one of the players, and then lost his balance. Both referee and player fell awkwardly to the ice.

Before he could get back up, a coach left his bench, landing on top of the referee and the boy. While they tussled, another player struck the referee with his stick. The boy at the bottom of the original pile suffered a fractured arm.

This game was the very definition of "out of control." Now, we all want to know: Who was ultimately responsible for losing that control?

Some angry parents have pointed a finger at the referee, accusing him of being too aggressive in separating players. They claim the referee did not slip, but rather that he deliberately slammed the boy to the ice. They further allege all this trouble erupted because the referees "lost control" of the game.

That is hockey code for "failed to call the appropriate penalties early enough in the game to keep things under control." It's true that the most important call you make each game is the first call. And that a referee who is not firm and consistent from the first puck drop can lose control of the game.

However, it would be wrong to suggest reluctant referees were the main problem here.

Eyewitnesses confirmed this game was, before it started, emotionally strained.

The two teams had played once before in this tournament, and it was a chippy affair. Perhaps a more experienced referee could have defused the emotions, perhaps not. The truth of the matter is the responsibility for this debacle rests with every adult in the rink.

Like the coaches.

Coaches should not encourage nor tolerate dangerous or deviant behaviour by their players. These two teams had history, and by all reports this game was edgy from the get-go. Coaches must work as hard as officials to control their players' emotions and keep them within the rules of the game. There is little evidence either of the coaches fulfilled that prime responsibility.

It is not known whether either of the teams involved have punished players who fought, tried to fight or otherwise contributed to the melee. If not, they should be, with suspensions or reduced ice time.

Certainly, no coach has an excuse for getting involved in anything on the ice. Leaving the bench is an act of anarchy that no official, no matter how experienced, can hope to manage.

Then there are the fans.

Veteran referees will tell you a boisterous, bloodthirsty crowd can do more to incite on-ice violence than almost any other single factor. Fans who howl at every bodycheck, every missed call and every thrust and parry of a game inject unwanted, unbridled emotion into the game.

(Here's a quick gut check: If you've cheered when a child on an opposing team was hammered, yelled at a referee or screamed directions at your own child, then you have escalated on-ice emotion. And not in a good way.)

This was, by all accounts, a perfect storm of conditions: grudges, tournament stress -- where young players are asked to play too many games in too short a time -- unruly spectators and laissez-faire coaches.

One of the two referees working the game in question told the Free Press in an interview the entire tournament was obstreperous. He recounted being verbally taunted and insulted throughout the weekend. At one point, he said he was jostled by a fan after leaving the ice and had to be escorted by security out of the rink.

He said the fans throughout the tournament used him as a "chew toy."

When you take all those factors into account, criticizing the referee is pretty silly. Yes, referees are on the front line of control. But there is a limit to what they can manage.

Criticizing the referees in this incident is like deliberately burning your own home to the ground, and then moaning that the fire department did not act quickly enough to extinguish the blaze.

We expect a lot from the adults who oversee our kids when they play hockey. When things go badly, we all have theories about who was responsible. And yet, how much time do we spend assessing our own role in the dysfunction? As this incident clearly demonstrates, not nearly enough.

If we were really honest with ourselves, we would realize that it's everyone's responsibility to maintain control of a hockey game.

And that when things go badly, we all need to share in the blame.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2014 A5

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