The following essay is part two of a series of essays on the problem of violence and brain injuries in youth hockey. Part one is a well-rounded overview of the problem and part two provides a more in-depth discussion of the proposed solution.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Reducing Violence in Youth Hockey: The Solution
By Thomas Babson, with Alden S. Blodget
The hit, delivered moments after the final buzzer, slammed 15-year-old Neal Goss’s head into the boards and left him paralyzed. The JV game between New Trier and Glenbrook North, outside of Chicago, had been ugly even before the puck was dropped. The teams and fans traded insults, and escalating violence quickly put the whole thing out of control.
Another tragedy. Who’s to blame? Everyone wants a villain, and this incident offered a crowd of candidates–coaches, referees, parents, players, fans, league administrators. As Doug Abrams wrote (March 22, 2012), “No adult in the rink . . . had the ethical compass, emotional strength, or common sense to stop the game.”
But, really, what does blame matter? A 15-year-old boy is paralyzed, his life permanently changed. This incident received national attention because of the severity of the injury and the startling nature of the senseless violence. While such dramatic injuries are fortunately rare, games in which escalating violence leads to injury, like concussions, are all too common. These injuries and their cumulative effect on players can be equally devastating late in life — leaving victims with profound cognitive and emotional damage. Some estimates put the annual increase in youth hockey concussions at 15%. This trend will likely continue as long as people remain interested primarily in assigning blame after an injury has occurred instead of preventing injuries before they happen.
While working on a research study of concussions during the 2010-2013 seasons when I was coaching Pewees and Bantams, I surveyed 21 coaches and 19 referees (Babson, 2014), asking each several questions, including, “Who is most responsible for controlling violence during games?” The coaches’ responses varied: five said players; seven said coaches; and nine said referees. The referees, on the other hand, were unanimous: all said coaches.
This same survey included research of 328 articles about violence and hockey injuries; it showed similar results. While 61 of 65 articles presented coaches negatively and 20 of 20 were negative about parents/spectators and 18 of 18 were negative about players, only 19 articles even mentioned referees, and of those only two were negative. This year, when I presented my findings at the annual meetings of the USA Hockey Association and the Mass Hockey Association, I asked the audiences the same question about who bears responsibility for violence in youth hockey games, and 95% raised their hands to blame the coaches.
Although referees are typically not blamed for player injuries, they are constantly criticized and castigated during the games themselves–attacked and abused for bad calls and missed calls. Coaches blame refs for letting games get out of control; refs blame coaches for failing to control their players; and the result is a culture built on a foundation of poisoned relationships. Not a particularly healthy environment for children. What matters is not “who is to blame” or even “who is more to blame than the other guy”; what matters is what adults can do together to make hockey a safer environment for youth hockey players.
Despite the optimistic clichés about “mutual respect and support” contained in the USAH Rule Book, the behavior of coaches and refs during games too often reflects aggressive and mutual contempt. Too many coaches spend games berating refs, trying to intimidate them, trying to get an edge. Too many refs refuse to talk with coaches, treating coaches with a kind of arrogant disdain, flaunting the power of their word-as-law. The toxic atmosphere of animosity and growing frustration can’t help but affect players and fans. The players’ aggression increases, and inflamed fans join the coaches in hurling invective at the refs. Sometimes, they even start fights with each other.
Research tells us that serious injuries and concussions tend to occur in games rather than in practice and, overwhelmingly, in the third period, late in the game when player frustration is greatest. The last thing players need is an atmosphere charged with the additional rage of adult conflict. The inevitable result is even greater levels of violence and increased risk of injury.
What the sport needs, especially during games, when the kids require protection, is a partnership among adults who love hockey and care about the well-being of the children who play it, a partnership that has at its core a strong working relationship between coaches and referees. It’s time for a psychological paradigm shift in youth hockey, a new attitude, new civility, and the first step is to identify spheres of authority and control.
What do authority and control mean in the context of a sport?
• Authority in any sport suggests power that is conferred by the rules that govern the game.
• Control suggests responsibility for managing behavior during a game:
Players have no authority but the responsibility to control themselves;
Parents have no authority but the responsibility to control themselves;
Coaches have authority over their own team and the responsibility to control themselves and their players; and
Referees have authority over all participants and the responsibility to control the game.
The last of these spheres may be the most misunderstood. During my surveys, I discovered that many referees resist the suggestion that they control the game. They say, “We don’t control anything. We just call penalties.” Referees may have many good reasons for this misconception, but the fact remains that the refs’ sphere of authority is the game, and everyone knows it.
The USAH clearly grants them this authority: “The referee shall have general supervision of the game and his decision shall be final in all matters occurring before, during or after the game. The role of the official is to enforce the rules of the game and in doing so shall have full authority over all participants” (Rule 502a). And The Handbook identifies the goal in granting this authority: “Each official should enforce all playing rules fairly and respectfully with the safety of the players [emphasis added] and the best interest of the game in mind. Players must be held accountable for dangerous and illegal actions with the proper enforcement of the rules at all times.” Nothing can be more important than “the safety of the players.”
The USAH Officiating Assigner’s Handbook states, “Game management responsibility lies primarily with the on-ice officials.” And, despite claims to the contrary, the refs themselves really do know that the control of the game is theirs. In a Canadian study (Ackery et al, 2012), 632 referees were interviewed, and 90% reported that they had been the object of verbal or physical abuse from coaches and parents. Of these, 55% said that this abuse resulted in their “losing control of the game.” These are their own words and reflect their understanding of their job.
In fact, the referees are the only authority on the ice during a game. They are the last line of defense available to the players. When players fail to control themselves and coaches fail to control their own players, no one is left but the refs, whose sphere of control is the game itself. The USAH gives the referees specific tools that they can use to exert this control: various levels of penalties, warnings, ejections, suspensions, cooling-off periods and ending the game. They have the power and the responsibility to eject players whose repeated violence threatens others. They can banish to the locker room coaches who encourage violence, and they can shut down the whole game. And the hard fact is that the refs must not lose control of the game– no matter what the provocation–for when they do, kids get hurt.
Understanding these spheres of authority and control and accepting responsibility for the appropriate sphere are essential first steps. The second step may be even more important: replacing the culture and psychology of animosity with a real spirit of mutual respect and mutual support. The glue that ought to bind the adults is the overriding goal of protecting kids from serious injuries, like paralysis and concussions. That’s the common ground. Referees and coaches must be allies in a more significant cause than winning or losing a game. And improved communication will build mutual respect. How coaches and refs talk to each other during games matters.
During a game, when infractions occur, four things must happen:
• Referees must make the call, erring on the side of safety.
• Coaches must support the call even if they disagree with it.
• Players must understand that refs and coaches will not tolerate the penalized behavior.
• Parents/fans must see the partnership between coaches and refs.
And communication must become a desirable, common part of the game. Referees should encourage non-confrontational discussion and be willing to explain their calls if asked. Not defend them; explain them. Coaches need to ask non-antagonistic questions if they genuinely did not understand or see the penalty, and the player needs to understand the infraction. Both coaches and referees must cooperate by agreeing to discuss only the larger violence penalties (hits to the head, hits from behind, roughing, boarding, and charging). There is no need to discuss lesser penalties. After the ref explains the call, the coach needs to support it during the game. (More about this point later.)
Typically, coaches and referees can see the early signs that players are becoming more violent; from their vantage on the ice, they can read the body language of the players and gauge the level of aggression. They can tell when the cheap shots begin — the extra hit on a player who no longer has the puck, the jab of an elbow far from the action. If coaches start to worry about safety during a game, referees should not just listen to their concern but treat it like real partners who care about maintaining safety. If referees become concerned about safety, they must not wait for a specific infraction. They should be proactive, not reactive, and take the initiative to discuss the behavior with coaches and the relevant players. In response, the coaches should engage with the refs to solve the problem. If these levels of communication become the norm during games, it is much less likely that games will spiral out of control. However, if they do, both the coaches and the referees should feel free to stop play and initiate a crisis-management meeting that brings all these adults together.
During any of these levels of discussion, both coaches and refs need to feel that they have been heard and respected. The psychology of cooperation, the give-and-take of genuine conversation and focused problem-solving, must replace what can feel like an endless rivalry between competing egos. Some will object that all this communication takes too much time from the game. Time is not important. Safety is. Discussion is, therefore, essential.
Players and parents who witness this level of cooperation and unity between coaches and refs will be much less likely to lose control of themselves, for the atmosphere in the rink will be completely different from the divisive combativeness that stirs them up now. The psychology and the culture of youth hockey would be transformed. Cooperation would be a true paradigm shift. Imagine the difference. Instead of watching coaches going berserk over borderline violence penalties against their team, fans would see a ref skate over to the bench and say, “Yes, coach, it was a close call, but I’m erring on the side of caution because the game is getting rough,” and both coaches would nod their heads and warn their players to tone it down.
Of course, despite the necessary appearance of unity during a game, frustrations and real anger will not entirely disappear. This isn’t a fairy tale. Some coaches will think some refs have done a dreadful job, and some refs will feel the same way about some coaches, and there must be an outlet for these frustrations, something to take the place of swearing and screaming during the game itself. That something is the role of the administrators, who must also be part of this partnership.
The sphere of authority and control of administrators is oversight of the entire sport and everyone in it. They are responsible for the rules that create the conditions and structures for safety; they are responsible for supporting the spirit and reality of the partnership for safety; they are responsible for the training and education of coaches and referees and for establishing points of emphasis; and they are responsible for evaluation, accountability and, if necessary, sanctions for failures that threaten the safety of the players. Whenever they attend any game, they have a responsibility to assess the level of violence and the quality of the referees’ control of the game. If they see a game falling apart, they must act–either by stopping the game to talk to the refs and coaches or by ending the game entirely.
Their role in the new communication dynamic is crucial. They, too, must invite communication and create a process that allows coaches and referees to record whatever complaints they need to make following games. And they must respond to these complaints so that coaches or referees know how they were resolved and that their concerns have been taken seriously.
If you talk to referees, coaches or parents, they all will tell you that they care deeply about the safety of the players. Everyone now knows about the long-term effects of brain trauma, especially repeated concussions during childhood. No one wants to see a child’s head hit the boards and snap back, leaving him dazed and vacant. Yet once the puck is dropped, some sort of atavistic psychology takes over and people forget that they are watching a game played by children. “Hit him!” “Stop being such a wuss!” “Come on ref, let them play!”
And then there is this awful silence, a sudden hush swaddling Neal Goss or some other unconscious child lying still on the ice. The boy who hit Neal said in court that he “could never say ‘sorry’ enough.” Neither, I imagine, could the adults who might have prevented the injury by uniting to form a Partnership for Safety and creating a new culture for youth hockey.
Abrams, Douglas E., “All Safety is Local (Part 1),” Ask Coach Wolff, March 22, 2012.
Alun Ackery, Charles Tator and Carolyn Snider, “Violence in Canadian Amateur Hockey: The Experience of Referees in Ontario,” Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012.
Babson, Thomas, et al., ” Protecting Children on the Ice: Referees and Responsibility,” leagueoffans.org (June 6, 2014).
USA Hockey 2011-2013 Official Rules of Ice Hockey.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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