Jack Blatherwick

Adults must make it happen: Replace violence with skill

By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

An incredible, young athlete lies motionless in the hospital bed, staring at the ceiling, because that is all his restrictive halo allows. When Jack Jablonski is not visited by a parade of friends, or listening to someone read thousands of letters from around the world, he lies awake in fear that he may be paralyzed for life.

I’m sure that any parent who would stand next to their child’s bed – where Leslie and Mike stand with their son – would start a movement to change the direction of youth and high school hockey. We can act immediately in youth hockey – with or without the governing bodies, with or without the NHL. After all, young athletes trust that rational, caring adults will make their game safe.

 

This should be the fastest, most skillful game in the world. Wins and losses should be determined by creative playmaking, not cheating. However, colleges and junior teams have found a simple formula for winning. Just dump it in and forecheck. Keep it simple. It doesn’t require practice and instruction on offensive skills. Just skate hard and play the body.

This seems legal and safe at first … but enter the incentive to win, and in hockey more than other sports, this means cheating and physical intimidation. Players are told, “The first forechecker in must hit. The harder we hit the defense, the more turnovers. Put ‘em through the glass.”

This is a viable plan to win – accepted all over North America, at every level down to our youngest children – but there is one detail. It is illegal. It violates the most important rules for safety: charging and boarding.

Many games start with the coaching advice, “Don’t get too fancy at first. Get it deep and forecheck hard.” When a game starts with dangerous hits to the end boards, and that is the main offensive attack – not skillful playmaking – the violence escalates out of control.

Hits to the head are all too common, as are crosschecks after the whistle, and cheating on defense. Tempers flare when a crafty forward is neutralized by hooking and interference.  This is the defensive contribution by college and junior hockey.

“The refs can’t call it every time,” it is argued. But that is a give-up argument, and has been disproven. The NHL did it with hooking and interference. They stuck with it when coaches thought there were too many penalties, and it made their game much more skillful.

Our immediate reaction is to retaliate when we are fouled. At the instant of rage, our reptilian lower brains control our actions. We want to lash out. Fight fire with fire. “If you get cross-checked, get even.”

We adults have contributed to the violence as much as players. We yell at referees, making their job 10 times harder than it should be. Other sports have risen above this and deserve to use the word ‘sportsmanship.’ We fake it in hockey

I cast stones at no one without admitting my own contributions to this mess. Years ago, if someone had shown me a video of the raging idiot I was, when yelling at a ref, I would not have waited this long to say something.

To reduce the unsportsmanlike rants by coaches, the referees should eliminate all explanations to players and coaches about why they called a penalty. Drop the puck, as they do in the NHL. Drop it so fast the coach doesn’t have time to argue, because he has to get his penalty killers on the ice. If they want explanations, give them a rulebook.

It is time for a New Year’s resolution: Stop the violence, the venomous trash talk by all of us and the intimidation of referees. Reduce the reliance on physical intimidation, and increase the skills. ELIMINATE ALL CHECKING AGAINST THE BOARDS.

You can ride the opponent into the boards if you achieve body position first, but you cannot hit the opponent into the boards. Referees would not have to decide which hit from behind is legal and which is not. THERE IS NO LEGAL HIT INTO THE BOARDS.

We agree with those who say, “It’s a physical game.” However, the limits are defined in the rulebook. Let’s put everyone in the same competitive starting blocks by using the book, not the unwritten macho code, which basically leaves the interpretation of ‘physical’ to each individual or each coach.

Parents could change youth and high school hockey immediately – I mean, for the remainder of this season. We call it a sport, yet we purposely compete outside our own written rulebook more than all other sports.

Players are allowed to cheat, and no one knows the limits; therefore the best cheaters have a greater chance to win. Skill loses.

We are told that unwritten rules help the game police itself, but we’re still waiting for that to happen. How is any game contested fairly when the rules are ignored to an unknown extent?

Some of the unwritten code would be laughable, if it didn’t contribute to the escalation of violence. For example, we don’t even stop on the whistle like other physical sports. According to the unwritten code, you are allowed to crosscheck an opposing forward after the whistle, if he looks at your goalie from close range. Ignore whistles if you want to continue pushing, shoving and trash-talking, as long as you are telling the opponent to stop pushing, shoving and trash-talking.

Herb Brooks said quite often, “We are the temporary caretakers of the game.” But, I wonder who the ‘WE’ are in this challenge? Do we wait for the good old boys of the NHL to stop thinking that players can police themselves? Do we wait for college coaches to stop their anti-skill philosophy of winning? Do we wait for anything?

Of course not. The challenge is for concerned parents in hockey – when we are away from the arena, and our cognitive brain overrules the reptilian one that lurks within us. We must push the leaders in USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey to action immediately, but we can’t wait for anyone who is slow to act.

Start the movement now before we injure more young athletes who put their trust in us. Start it now, and we will see the most skillful teams win.

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

The Benilde-St. Margaret's girls' hockey team is selling "Jabby #13/Stay Strong" wristbands for $2 each with all proceeds going to Jablonski family. To order, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .