The topic of crazy hockey parents, often a source of discussion (and more) in rinks across Canada, has made the rounds in Winnipeg this past 2 weeks. First was the news of a fist fight among two parents and rival coaches of two 8 year old (novice) Winnipeg teams playing down in Fargo North Dakota the weekend before last.
Second was the announcement days later that Hockey Winnipeg will be requiring hockey parents take a Respect in Sport course starting this upcoming hockey season before their kids will be able to participate in minor hockey.
Finally was the hockey fight that broke out among 12 year old kids this past weekend in Winnipeg, and the melee that ensued.
As a hockey parent (usually the good kind, but honestly not always) I find the incidents in Fargo and Winnipeg unfortunate but not surprising, and the efforts of Hockey Winnipeg a step in the right direction but unfortunately not something that will cure the sort of “headline” incidents we read in papers across Canada. First let me focus on why these actions of Hockey Winnipeg likely will have only a marginal affect, and then why this issue of aggressive hockey parents matters for the success of minor hockey in Canada.
From my experience (5 years as a parent of a kid in minor hockey, as well as a few years as a coach), overly aggressive parents usually fall into one of two groups: intense hockey parents and protective hockey parents. Those in the first group may believe their kid is going to the NHL (WHL/NCAA/etc) or at the very least spend significant money and time trying to make their kid a competitive player within their peer group (so they can make AA, AAA, top spring teams, etc). These parents are heavily invested (financially and emotionally) in their kids’ hockey development and so not surprisingly are also heavily invested in the games these kids play. Many of these parents coach hockey when their kids are very young, so they have already taken the Respect in Sport course (note that the two incidents above involved coaches). For the non-coaches in the group, it is unclear to me that an internet course will have much impact on their intensity at the rink.
The other group are the parents who witness their child being harmed or being put in harm’s way during a game and lash out. Will a Respect in Sport course have much impact here? As any parent knows, their kids are the most important things in their lives, and when they see their child harmed or potentially harmed, the protective side comes out. A course is not going to offset that natural instinct to protect.
This is not to say that the Respect in Sport course is going to make things worse, it won’t. Calgary introduced a program three years ago. Since the program was begun, disciplinary actions against parents has declined from approximately 25 per year to 21 or 22. Not a big change, in my opinion, and perhaps not a causal relationship. http://www.calgaryherald.com/sports/Hockey+parental+program+cuts+abusive+behaviour/9495419/story.html
The program may help with the image of minor hockey in Canada. If Hockey Canada wants to get more kids (and their parents) interested in minor hockey, they need to do more to improve the image of minor hockey and hockey parents.
While this is not a single solution problem (or an easy one), something that will go a long way in improving parent behaviour is improving the refereeing in minor hockey. Often these headline incidents occur as a result of games getting out of hand, leading parents, coaches, and the kids to do regrettable things on and off the ice. This isn’t to say there aren’t high quality referees out there, there certainly are. And no one would argue that being a referee is easy. It’s a tough job, especially for teenagers, and minor hockey has a tough time finding referees. Having said that, minor hockey owes it to the kids on the ice and the parents paying pretty serious money for their kids to participate in the sport, to ensure that there are competent referees. Too often the games are policed (at least at the younger levels) by two very young, inexperienced referees. A big step forward would be to require one of the referees (for every level of play) be older and/or experienced. There needs to be someone on the ice who is confident enough to make the hard calls on the ice and is willing to stop the game until a coach or an abusive fan leaves the arena. When this happens, things get settled very quickly.
This is obviously part of a larger discussion, but courses like Respect in Sport are only a small part of the larger measures needed to improve minor hockey for all involved, and for those potential parents and kids that Hockey Canada wants to reach.