This week, minor-hockey playoffs started in most areas of Winnipeg. As a result, more Winnipeggers will watch live hockey this weekend than at almost any other time in the season.
No one knows exactly who is going to come out on top. One of the great traditions of minor hockey in Winnipeg is that every team makes the playoffs, which creates a world of possibilities. The only thing that is certain is that frequently over the next couple of weeks, we're going to demonstrate our general ignorance of the rules of hockey.
Let's admit what's going to happen. Every hit delivered to a player on your team is a penalty, whether it's called or not. And every penalty assessed against your team is a crime against humanity. You will yell at children you don't know who wear opposing colours and assail the character of those unfortunate enough to serve as referees. You will see a conspiracy behind every call, and you might even point an accusing finger at a fan from another team.
Taking a moment away from the zaniness of the arena and the heightened emotion of playoff hockey, are we really helping the game? More importantly, are we really helping our kids, or instilling in them an attitude that will ensure future generations will be just as presumptuous as us?
The rules of hockey are hard to understand, even among a populace immersed in the sport from a very young age. Lamentably, most of our hockey knowledge is acquired by word of mouth from discussions and debates at the rink. Most adults, even those coaching hockey, have never had any formal education in the rules of the national sport.
For this reason, the Free Press, with the assistance of Hockey Canada, has created the Great Canadian Hockey Rules Quiz.
For the record, the rules have changed considerably since they were first devised. The game is faster at all levels, and there is a heightened focus on player safety. The rules are not like a 10 commandments of the game, written in stone and immune to change or challenge. The rule book is a living, constantly evolving document.
Hockey Canada, which publishes the definitive rules of hockey, generally reviews and changes some rules every two years. However, many provinces, cities, and even area associations within those cities, modify the rules even further. The constantly evolving nature of the rules, combined with local and regional preferences, make it very hard for players, parents, coaches and referees to stay current.
Knowledge of the rules was an important underlying issue at the heart of an incident two weeks ago at a Winnipeg arena. It went viral, thanks to a video posted on the Internet. In the video, the parent of a 15-year-old player erupts after his son is penalized for a hit that resulted in contact with a much smaller player's head. The father is incredulous his son would be penalized just because the other player was smaller. The video shows the referee properly applied the new rule for head-shot penalties introduced to the game by Hockey Canada last season.
Todd Anderson, manager of officiating for Hockey Canada, said many adults either watching or coaching hockey have trouble understanding that the rules, and the interpretation of those rules, can be different at different levels of hockey. The rules and interpretations in minor hockey are not the same as in junior or university hockey, and different still than the application in professional hockey.
"It is important to understand there are many different rules or interpretations between minor hockey and leagues such as junior or the NHL," Anderson said. "What you see when you watch the Brandon Wheat Kings play is not the same as what you should expect at a peewee game. But we all pick up on a version of the rules, a stance, and then we believe that is the way the game should be played."
That appears to be why adults will show up at a game involving a bunch of 12-year-olds and howl when a penalty is assessed for a play that would be acceptable in, say, junior hockey, but which is clearly over the top in minor hockey. We simply don't adjust our view of the standards of the game to fit the profile of the participants.
It does not help that certain scenarios commonplace in hockey are not specifically addressed in the letter of the rules. For example, "finishing your check" is a standard strategy at almost every level of hockey once bodychecking is allowed. But what does it mean? How late after a player has relinquished the puck can he be bodychecked?
Talk to referees, and they will tell you it's a judgment call to determine if a player arrives too late to deliver a check. The rule book doesn't actually include the term "finishing a check," even though it's a very commonly discussed concept. It is, simply put, the point at which body contact goes from being a technique for "separating a player from the puck" to a tool of intimidation. It's also a scenario in which it seems a disproportionate number of injuries occur. In this instance, it's not hard to see how the ambiguity inherent in the lack of a clear definition can cause hard feelings, regardless whether a penalty is called or not.
In general, better understanding of the rules should be a benefit for the average hockey fan. Especially if that knowledge is accompanied by a measure of moderation, especially at the lower levels of hockey.
Take the time and do the quiz. Then when you get to the rink this weekend, give yourself an extra second or two after witnessing a collision between two players and ask yourself this pointed question: Do I know the rule?
To take the Great Canadian Hockey Rules Quiz, click here.