It would be easy to conclude our beloved national game is broken.
Throughout the season, we've heard nothing but stories of violence, abuse and dysfunction.
On-ice riots in which referees were assaulted. Allegations of racism. Fisticuffs between adults in front of eight-year-old players. It all culminated with a decision by Hockey Winnipeg to ban one couple from all hockey-related activities for three years.
And yet, the stars may be aligning to create a rare opportunity to make a positive out of this negative season.
Through a combination of investment returns and revenue windfalls, Hockey Winnipeg has found itself sitting on a surplus of nearly $1 million. Hockey Winnipeg president Don McIntosh said about half of that money should be expended in some way. "We're a non-profit and it's not good policy for us to be sitting on a fund of that size," he said.
For the time being, an internal committee is studying possible uses for the funds, including a rebate to area associations, McIntosh said.
It would be hard to understate the importance of HW's decision. This money could do a lot of good in hockey, but only if there is a commitment to using it in an impactful way. Unfortunately, returning it to area associations is not the best way of doing that.
Area associations do excellent work. In fact, they do all of the heavy lifting, from registration to ordering jerseys and overseeing tryouts and team formation. Area-association volunteers are the unsung heroes of the game, overworked and underappreciated.
However, area associations should not manage cash windfalls. They are service organizations, with limited oversight and accountability.
Very few area associations post their constitutions, board-meeting minutes or annual reports online. That is not to suggest there is anything untoward. Only that it's not a good idea to drop a pile of cash on them.
But what else could the money be used for? Hockey Winnipeg could make a real impact on the game if it focused the money on areas of greatest need -- things that could create lasting, positive change.
To that end, here are several suggestions that I have collected from fellow coaches, conveners and officials over the past season.
Cameras in rinks
Hockey Winnipeg is currently deluged with smartphone videos from parents or teams complaining about some on-ice incident. However, HW also has a policy not to use submitted video as evidence in disciplinary matters because it cannot guarantee authenticity.
But what if HW had its own video? Cameras in rinks could create independent evidence of any incident on or off the ice. It's also possible that the mere presence of the cameras could have a calming effect on the game.
Mentors for coaches
Under the terms of Hockey Canada's National Coach Certification Program, adults need only obtain Coach Level to manage the bench at all ages and most levels of community and recreational hockey. Once obtained (by attending a one-day clinic), you never have to recertify or be assessed. Ever.
HW would do well to hire top-level mentors to provide regular, mandatory assessment for all coaches, regardless of experience. This would be an opportunity to improve coaches' knowledge of the rules, fair-play policies, practice plans and bench management.
Mentors for referees
Unlike coaches, referees must recertify each season. However, those clinics are brief, casual and focused mostly on new rule changes. After that, most referees get absolutely no oversight or assessment in a game situation.
Some area associations have hired senior officials to mentor younger officials, with great success. However, there is clear need for a city-wide mentoring program to support and improve the quality of officiating. This would allow HW to pay senior officials to be at the rink, assessing and instructing younger officials in game conditions.
Creation of a hockey ombudsperson
Existing governing bodies do a good job policing players and team officials on the ice. However, off the ice, recent headlines have shown things get ambiguous and complex pretty quickly.
Perhaps it's time to establish a hockey ombudsperson to look at the myriad personal and political issues, including conflicts involving parents, spectators and area associations. The ombudsperson would be a truly objective voice in the game, free of all fear and favour with a central focus on making the game fairer and safer.
A half-million-dollar windfall is pretty rare. Regardless of how they decide to expend it, hockey's guardians must focus on one prevailing question: Did we use it to make the game better?