Thursday, December 23, 2004

I'm Fixing the NHL

Todd Bertuzzi: Guilty, sort of.

Well it looks like being guilty of committing a crime doesn't really mean you're guilty; as long as you are rich, famous and a local hero. Not that it's a surprise that a plea bargain has been reached, but... wouldn't a trial have been a good thing this time?

The Crown says it didn't want to waste tax-payer dollars on a trial. Bert's lawyer probably felt he would lose (McSorely lost in a Vancouver courtroom on the same charge). However, the biggest influence was probably by the NHL.

By not having a big, showy, media-laden public trial, the NHL gets to once again, ignore the issue of gratuitous violence in hockey.

Now, the NHL isn't going to listen to me and my opinion probably doesn't matter. My kid won't play hockey so I'm not worried about the repercussions of this on him as a junior player. However, as a fan, the NHL does have a violence problem. Hitting has always been a part of hockey. Shoulders and hips are great for crushing a guy into the boards - when done properly.

The concern that I and many other fans have, is that issues like the Bertuzzi incident are becoming all to common. Kids playing junior see their NHL heros go out and deliver bone crushing blows from behind, ram guys head first into the boards and sucker punch players for "retribution". Junior hockey mom's and dad's are supporting this culture of overt violence when they push other parents around and abuse the coaches and refs. Kids see all of this. Add it to their own coaches' testosterone-induce quest for glory, because he's driving them to fulfill his own failed dreams and you create little stick-wielding, overly protected monsters. No wonder they grow up to be players that play dirty.

The newest move to prevent injury and curb the violence in junior hockey is to limit the age at which kids can hit each other. A good theory. Let the kids develop some skills at a young age and then, when they reach a "mature" point in their career, let them hit each other. Like a lot of theories it falls apart in practice. Forgive the bad sports pun.

It's at about age 11 kids can start to hit. What happens in an over-whelming number of cases is that the kids get so fired up about hitting, that's all they want to do. The skills take a back seat, the game takes a back seat and the parents get all frothy because the kids are so focused on hitting, it completely takes over.

So, how do we fix this? As you probably know by now, I'm not one to just whine about something and then walk away without offering my sage advice -whether you want it or not.

A few ideas. Blindingly simple.

1. The NHL must start enforcing their rules about unprovoked violence. Hand out massive suspensions and huge fines. If you play dirty in the NHL, you don't play. End of story.

2. Let kids hit. From day one teach them how to do it properly, and let them go at it. It'll get boring by the middle of the first season. Then, teach them to play.

3. Drop the same suspensions on the kids as on the pros. If you play dirty in junior, you don't play.

4. Take the NHL down to a 20 team league. Get rid of some of the deadwood. Take away some of the undercompetitive teams and you'll lose a bunch of player spots in the league. That will force teams to focus on hiring skilled players and losing their fourth-line goon squad.

5. Make every NHL player, handed a suspension and fine, spend his suspension traveling North America, coaching junior and apologizing to kids.

Everybody wins. The players in all leagues will be safer, the kids playing junior will have better role models, the NHL will help hockey evolve into a better, faster game and you and I will still get to see big guys crush other big guys.


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