Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Off-ice education program doesn't go far enough

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Call it the Fisticuffs in Fargo.

Last weekend at a tournament in Fargo, N.D., several adults from two Manitoba hockey teams got into an old-fashioned hockey brawl.

The incident unfolded something like this: Hockey mom and dad from one Manitoba team barges into the dressing room of another Manitoba team following a game, a confrontation ensues and punches are thrown; witnesses include a dozen terrified eight-year-olds.

It's a horrible story, but not unprecedented. Most veteran hockey folk can, at the drop of a hat, relate stories about the three-alarm freak-outs, unauthorized incursions into dressing rooms and chest-thumping, glass-whacking grand mal seizures that regularly occur in arenas all over the province.

Hockey Winnipeg and the area associations involved in the Fargo incident have promised to take action. Unfortunately, there is very little they can do.

They could suspend the parents from future games. But if those parents wanted to fight those suspensions, they would find out hockey currently does not have much in the way of legal authority to discipline spectators. That is why the hysterical spectator is such an enduring part of our national pastime.

We have made great strides over the years to change some of the ugly aspects of our game. But unruly spectators are a problem that has mostly defied all efforts at reformation. That's not to say we aren't still trying.

This week, Hockey Winnipeg announced it would require one parent from each hockey family to complete Respect in Sport (RIS), an online seminar that outlines acceptable behaviour in hockey. Many years ago, Hockey Canada made RIS a mandatory component for coaching certification.

Hockey Winnipeg is following efforts by Hockey Calgary and other groups that are making parents take RIS in the hopes of curbing abhorrent behaviour.

It is an admirable undertaking but not likely to do much good. Hockey has been telling spectators for years not to yell at referees, opposing players and their own kids. We have created parent liaisons to police the stands. The bad behaviour endures.

What we haven't done is come up with an effective way of punishing bad spectator behaviour the way we punish bad on-ice behaviour.

Hockey has always put a lot of work into its rules and regulations. Hockey Canada sets out the broad strokes in its official rule book. Provincial and municipal bodies contribute additional rules and regulations.

However, none of these rules and regulations deal with spectators. Hockey has essentially adopted a policy that anything that happens in the stands before, during or after a game is not part of the game.

Traditionally, hockey's only weapon against unruly spectators has been to eject them from the arena. The decision to eject rests with the referee, aided by the arena attendant or manager.

The legal basis for ejecting fans has always been somewhat sketchy. There is nothing in hockey's rules or regulations that empowers referees to eject fans; it is seen as an extension of the rights granted by the owners of the arena to the group renting the ice.

That is to say, for the hour a particular hockey association rents ice, it has the power to decide who gets to stay and who should leave. As noted above, that has been the tradition, but it's a pretty ambiguous and incomplete solution.

For example, what if the fan refuses to leave? In some instances, the police can be called. Experienced referees will tell you they will, on occasion, threaten to suspend play, or assess bench minor penalties to the fan's team that owns the fan. That is mostly a bluff; the rule book does not include "failure to leave the rink" as a punishable offence.

The greater concern, however, is the complete lack of response after an incident has taken place. Governing bodies or area associations do not, as a rule, keep records of spectators involved in altercations or ejected from arenas. Many incidents such as the one in Fargo are simply not reported to anyone in hockey officialdom. The combatants are separated, profanities are exchanged and everyone goes their own way.

Sometimes a fan will be barred from attending games for a season or part of a season. But again, that is a penalty dished out without any formal authority. It's more like an odd extension of the honour system, where a spectator is told to stay away from the rink and he or she is expected to agree.

In addition to more education, hockey desperately needs to establish a formal contract with parents and extended family -- who constitute the gross majority of fans at a minor hockey game -- that allows for specific, enforceable sanctions for bad behaviour. The rules should also be changed to give on-ice officials the power to suspend or forfeit a game, or assess penalties to a team, if a fan of that team is disrupting play.

The hockey establishment may still be reluctant to get involved in fan incidents. However, as the eight-year-old witnesses to the Fisticuffs in Fargo will attest, what happens in the stands is absolutely, lamentably, part of the game.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 A4

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