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Violence not right road to hockey success

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The Montreal Canadiens' George Parros is stretchered off the ice in Montreal after Parros hit his head on the ice during a fight with Toronto Maple Leaf Colton Orr.

RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

The Montreal Canadiens' George Parros is stretchered off the ice in Montreal after Parros hit his head on the ice during a fight with Toronto Maple Leaf Colton Orr.

When Montreal enforcer George Parros dropped his gloves on Tuesday night to fight Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it wasn't what you'd call a seismic event.

The two have fought each other numerous times. The media predicted the two men would drop the gloves to settle, or perhaps prolong, a pugilistic dispute between the Leafs and Habs that began with a series of fights last season.

But when Parros fell face down onto the ice and lay motionless in a pool of his own blood, the fight suddenly found its seismic identity.

On the opening night of a strike- and lockout-free NHL season, the fight became the biggest story. Some leading voices in hockey -- notably Tampa Bay Lightening GM Steve Yzerman, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero -- said the NHL must look for ways to eliminate fighting. Yzerman in particular pointed out how stupid fighting is in a sport trying to cut down on checks to the head.

Many more voices, lamentably, went to great lengths to defend the status quo.

It's the same tired process. Not really a debate, because most of the people who express opinions on the subject -- former players and unemployed coaches in particular -- are almost always predisposed to support fighting. And not just because they think it would be difficult to get rid of. They actually argue fighting is good for the game.

However, if hockey's old guard needs a good reason to end fighting, they might want consider the impact it has on the youngest players in the game.

Most hockey opinion leaders are quick off the mark to explain that fighting in professional hockey has absolutely no impact on minor hockey. They will argue pros are adults, the rules are different, and children are simply not allowed to engage in the staged brutality the NHL allows.

However, every time a pro hockey player delivers a face wash to an opponent, or viciously slashes a puck carrier, or drops his gloves for a fight, there is a trickle-down effect that indoctrinates coaches, parents, and children in hockey violence.

This is an interesting time to have yet another debate on fighting, as all over the city kids have just finished vying for spots in AA (11 and up) and AAA (13 and up) programs. This is where kids get their first taste of higher-level hockey, and where (up until this year) bodychecking is introduced.

Prior to this, kids competed for spots on A1 teams based mostly on skill. As soon as the first 11-year-old AA camp opens up, however, the focus shifts. This is where we begin to emulate, and reward, the violence of the professional game.

The violence and recklessness ramps up significantly at age 13, when AAA hockey is introduced. The fastest, fiercest and biggest players establish their AAA credentials in large part by demonstrating a capacity for violence.

The result is in tryouts, parents watch helplessly as larger and less skilled players take violent liberties with smaller, skilled players. All in an effort to get noticed by the coach picking the team. The fact is, if your child is good at hockey, you must teach and encourage them to adopt the dangerous, reckless attitudes of professionals because we all know this is the only way to advance in hockey.

When it comes time for the special few players to rise to the ranks of junior hockey, it doesn't take much arm-twisting to add fighting to the inventory of acceptable methods of intimidation.

It is only when you look at the amount of reckless violence in minor hockey you begin to see the tragic irony in the argument the old guard makes for keeping fighting in the game.

Pro-fighting voices, including the NHL Player's Association, argue that fighting is actually the only way to curb dangerous behaviour like hits from behind, head shots and reckless stickwork. Fighting is a deterrent, or a punishment, for anyone who takes violent liberties with the skilled players.

That's a pretty tortured logic. Fighting isn't a deterrent. It's the final stage in the escalation of hockey violence. More importantly, it's an important signal to young players and their families violence is necessary for success.

If the ultimate goal is to stop reckless, dangerous play, then perhaps we should be teaching players at the youngest ages they will not get ahead simply by being the most violent player on the ice. Or, by ensuring that when it comes time to advance players through the hockey system, we reward noble qualities like intelligence, loyalty, courage and fair play, rather than quietly encouraging violence for violence's sake.

Rather than waiting for pro-fighting forces to become enlightened, perhaps we could start by teaching the kids violence is not the road to success.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2013 A8

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