It would be hard to overstate the significance of Hockey Winnipeg's decision to ban a Winnipeg couple from attending any game, practice, tournament or other official hockey activity for the next three years.
In two important ways, it is a history-making decision.
First, it is the longest ban ever issued to a non-player/non-team official in the history of Hockey Winnipeg. Players and coaches have been suspended for longer, but this is the stiffest penalty ever handed out to someone who didn't have their name on a game sheet.
Second, it was actually publicized.
Most incidents of off-ice misconduct are handled without much publicity. Most are kept within area associations and never make it beyond local gossip.
The more serious incidents that percolate up to Hockey Winnipeg are also, in most instances, kept under wraps.
In this instance, the couple in question -- accused of entering an opposing team's dressing room at a Fargo tournament and starting a physical confrontation with a coach -- wanted to leave open the possibility of appealing their suspension to Hockey Manitoba. As such, there was no longer any prospect of confidentiality.
Don McIntosh, president of Hockey Winnipeg, confirmed his organization has suspended parents or spectators in a few prior situations, but none involving a penalty this severe.
McIntosh agreed most hockey organizations believe their jurisdiction only extends to players and team officials; parents and spectators, while an important element of the game, were considered beyond the disciplinary reach of organized hockey.
Even in instances where a parent or spectator is ejected from an arena by an on-ice official, there were no official reports and often no formal follow up or discipline, he said.
The modern reality, McIntosh said, is hockey governing bodies have accepted they have a role to play in disciplining bad behaviour, both on and off the ice.
That does not mean everyone accepts this as part of the job of overseeing hockey. "There is still a lot of push and pull on this issue," he said.
Why the reluctance? Investigating incidents like the one in Fargo is a lot like trying to figure out right and wrong in a divorce. It is a classic "he said, she said" scenario in which independent evidence is rarely, if ever, available. People will lie, exaggerate and defame without hesitation.
(It deserves to be noted one of the reasons Hockey Winnipeg could make a finding in the case of the Fargo dust-up was evidence from coaches of a third team who witnessed the incident, but were not directly involved in it. Getting genuinely independent witnesses to an off-ice incident is very rare.)
Even if area associations accepted the job of disciplining parents and spectators, few have the capacity to conduct proper investigations or perform adjudications. Most do not pay a retainer for legal counsel (choosing instead to rely on free legal advice from volunteers) and very few understand due process for investigations.
It's well known aggrieved hockey parents can be quick to hire lawyers to overturn suspensions or save reputations. That usually means hockey organizations have to take money set aside for game-related expenses and spend it on legal fees. (It should be noted Hockey Winnipeg budgets $25,000 every year for legal fees.)
In the end, it's not hard to see why hockey volunteers see these incidents as risky. They are administratively onerous and legally perilous. In other words, not worth the trouble.
That is why Hockey Winnipeg and Hockey Manitoba are going to have to spend more time, money and effort investigating and adjudicating incidents involving spectators and parents.
As with any on-ice problems, clear reporting procedures need to be established so every time something off the ice happens, area associations are instructed to get the details into the hands of the senior governing bodies as quickly as possible. Right now, it requires a complaint by an individual or team to trigger involvement from the governing bodies. Or these incidents are handled internally, usually with unsatisfying results.
Area associations do not have the experience, the policy foundation or -- quite frankly -- the financial resources to fairly and efficiently investigate incidents of this kind. That can result in a disservice to both complainant and respondent in any conflict.
Hockey Winnipeg is showing remarkable leadership and sending a strong message to anyone who walks into a hockey arena to mind their behaviour.
The hockey community should follow up and create a process that ensures the guilty are punished, the innocent are supported and the game itself can, once again, become our primary focus.