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Friday, June 14, 2024
Ross’s Ramblings: Canadian hockey makes me ashamed, not proud
Hockey’s reputation for violence on the ice defines not only the spirit of Canada’s beloved sport, but also how the nation and its citizens are perceived around the world, writes Ross Robinson. RICHARD HARLEY/MIDJOURNEY

TD Bank’s ad “Let’s make Canada proud” scrolls across my television screen during the current Stanley Cup playoffs.

For a long time, I have been puzzled by Canadian hockey.

We are a nation known for peacekeeping and fairness. Indeed, in 1957 Prime Minister Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work defusing the Suez Canal crisis.

To be clear, I’m not some peace-loving wimp, wishing Canadian hockey could be more gentle and peaceful. I’ve survived “The Code.”

In 1967, as a very unremarkable defenceman playing Junior A hockey for the Sudbury Wolves in the old Northern Ontario Hockey Association, I set a record that stood for over two years.

In one game against the league leading North Bay Trappers, I was assessed 37 minutes in penalties. Three fights, two misconducts and the final ignominious punishment, “two minutes for delaying the game.”

That’s how one-sided the three fights had been, with future NHL enforcer Floyd Thomson pummelling me until the referee threw me out of the game early in the third period.

Bloodied, I called the ref over to the penalty box to tell him I had enjoyed his joke. He shouted, “I threw you out for your own protection. You were going to get seriously hurt.”

Even after I had turned turtle during the third fight.

Not much has really changed in the world of Canadian hockey since that game up north 57 years ago. Still a toxic culture with rules and customs that encourage bullying and thuggish behaviour. The Code lives on and our national game is struggling to remain relevant.

Minor hockey registration levels have dropped to the point where many “house leagues” don’t have enough teams. Hockey parents are forced to spend way too much time driving to out-of-town games and tournaments.

As the legendary American coach Badger Bob Johnson once said in Wisconsin, “No kid ever got better at hockey by sitting in the back of a minivan.”

The cost of these weekend hockey trips makes travel hockey exclusionary. And what if there is more than one child in the family?

Better to get the adults out of the way and let the kids play shinny, making up their own rules and picking their own teams. Instead, we perpetuate the toxic culture so that parents can have cocktail fodder.

Why don’t we forget the entire Junior A system, with its arguably criminal, labour law breaking, indefensible, archaic, education-inhibiting draft system that takes 16-year-old boys away from their homes, parents, families, schools and hometown friends?

The Olympics, the World Juniors, NCAA and Canadian university hockey do not allow fighting. Most of those games draw large crowds, proving that hockey fans love fast, clean games.

Games played in rinks sometimes filled with fans show us that the great Canadian inferiority complex is just plain wrong.

How many “expert” hockey people have said, “Americans won’t watch hockey if there is no fighting?” Wrong, wrong and wrong.

And who can forget the great national embarrassment in 1972? The so-called Summit Series was marred by thuggish, brawling behaviour by several of our Canadian players.

Obeying a coach’s instruction, Bob Clarke purposefully broke the ankle of Russian star Valeri Kharlamov with a vicious and deliberate two-handed slash.

Kharlamov was the MVP of the Soviet Championship League — so, we injured him. A clever Canadian tactic, eh? And still we were proud of “winning”?

Happily, I was in Munich working in the Olympic Village and did not even know the Summit Series was going on. Until I returned home to Canada in late September, I hadn’t heard about the boorish behaviour of some of our players.

Was I the only Canadian to have missed Paul Henderson’s three game-winning goals?

Hockey is a great game to play and watch, when played properly. I had so much fun as a kid and as an oldyimer playing the game. Without The Code.

Sunday morning NOTL Wallbangers hockey, played without referees and with only the occasional donnybrook, was so much fun for so many local men. And the team showers and epic camaraderie in “the room” after the game got us ready for the hearty team breakfast at Silks Country Kitchen.

While in Israel on Christmas Day in 2015, I was enjoying lunch on a Manger Square patio in Bethlehem. Only 20 minutes and two shekels on the public bus from Jerusalem.

Arab soldiers were ubiquitous in their flak jackets and burgundy berets, most armed with long and loaded rifles. Subtly surveying the scene.

My new pal Mousa asked me how I stayed so fit. I mentioned tennis and moderate quantities of Canadian beer. And twice weekly oldtimers hockey.

He loudly exclaimed, with his Palestinian accent, “Hockey. All they are doing is fighting each other!”

Sad, folks, but that’s the image many people around the world have of Canada. On TV, they see the NHL highlights, often showing out-of-control, bloody brawls.

Isn’t it sad but true, that many otherwise qualified hockey linesmen don’t get jobs because they are not big enough, or strong enough, to break up the frequent fights, scrums and facewashes. In some games, after almost every whistle.

Springbok and All Blacks rugby is as tough, or tougher, than hockey. No fights. Why? It’s against the rules. Play hard, do your best and meet in the pub later for beers.

I don’t watch professional or Junior A hockey for three reasons. The puck is too small and hard to follow. The fighting and violence is sad and embarrassing.

And, the players move too fast. I played the game, and often wonder how people who didn’t play can follow it.

A friend came to watch a Wallbangers game a few years ago and commented later it had been fun to be able to follow the action. “Slow motion hockey was great.”
I quit hockey during the pandemic. With some of the younger guys, I often felt like a pylon.

I’m done with Canadian hockey. Get rid of The Code and the fighting.

There. At last. I have vented.

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