Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hockey, heal thyself

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Canadian sailors who cross the equator for the first time are treated to a form of hazing where they may be required to kiss a fish and be immersed in a tank of water. It's an ancient tradition known as Crossing the Line, and by all accounts it has never gotten out of hand, in modern times at least. (You can find photos of the ritual on the navy's website.)

The point is that hazing can be a popular way of inviting newcomers into a fraternity, provided common sense, decency and sensitivity are applied.

In some frat houses, however, juvenile mentalities can turn a warm welcome into a brutal and demeaning experience. They cross the line from friendly initiation to extreme humiliation.

Hockey, unfortunately, seems to be one of those places where the best aspects of sportsmanship are often degraded, both on and off the ice.

Such is clearly the case in the sadistic hazing ritual that occurred in the locker-room of the Neepawa Natives, a team in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Some rookies were required to undress and then drag a box of water bottles by a rope tied to their genitals.

The team's coaches claim they were unaware of what was going on in the locker-room, but they had a duty and obligation to know. Hazing of any type is banned by Hockey Canada and its affiliates. Offenders are liable to suspensions of not less than one year, although lesser penalties are allowed in cases of undue hardship. For reasons that have not been explained, however, some of the perpetrators received suspensions of just two to five games, the kind of penalty that might be appropriate for swearing at an official.

The league has appointed an independent investigator, who should have the power to impose tougher penalties, which are obviously required to enforce the rules. Criminal charges may not be possible because of the possible existence of consent, but the case is worthy of an RCMP investigation nonetheless.

Other outstanding questions include whether similar forms of abuse were routine and widespread, or if the Neepawa case was merely an isolated incident, which seems unlikely.

In a larger context, the incident was discouraging for those who are demanding that professional players display less violence on the ice. How, after all, can older players be expected to behave properly if their violent instincts are encouraged as youth?

Hockey leagues claim they are raising gentlemen as well as hockey players, hence the requirement by some teams that players wear white shirts, ties and suits to the games if possible.

Junior hockey should be a time when youngsters learn the meaning of sportsmanship, but also the basic elements of humanity, decency and citizenship. If anything good is to come out of the locker-room in Neepawa, it must begin with a wholesale re-evaluation of the values and ethos of junior hockey.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 A18

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