I recently went to my first minor hockey game – a bantam middle-of-the-pack tilt between the Glanbrook (Ont.) Rangers and the Tillsonburg Tornadoes – in, I realized while there, quite a few years.
It wasn’t a particularly exciting game – the first period was competitive and the final two minutes were frenetic, but the game was lopsided, ending 10-1 in Tillsonburg’s favor. But it brought back memories of my days playing in antiquated arenas with moms and dads watching – and freezing – while little tykes ran through the stands playing tag or mini-sticks. And it was nice to just sit and watch a game, without having to analyze it, thinking about strategy, player salaries, stats, off-ice issues and whatever else is going on in the world of big-business hockey. It was sport in its pure form; kids playing because it’s fun.
But, of course, in my line of work it’s hard to not analyze and what struck me most was how much better the game flows when all of the post-whistle crease crap is eliminated. Watching an NHL game is often akin to watching a wrestling match, what with all the pushing and shoving, face-washing and general posturing that takes place just about every time a goalie freezes the puck.
That’s not to say the 13- and 14-year-old Glanbrook and Tillsonburg players weren’t playing hard – there were some big hits and players were upset with themselves when they missed a chance to make a play. And the Rangers were definitely a frustrated group. After playing the Tornadoes pretty much even for better than half the game, the score started getting out of hand late in the second period. And with the Glanbrook forwards streaking out of the defensive zone en masse every chance they got in ill-fated attempts to score, their blueliners were left virtually defenseless against the Tillsonburg counterattack.
As the goals-against began piling up, frustrations boiled over and the Rangers began fighting amongst themselves. At one point, big No. 17 even cuffed one of his teammates over the head because the other kid wouldn’t stop going on about a blown play.
But despite all the action around the nets and the escalating emotions, there wasn’t a single scrum after the whistle. Each time a goal was scored or a save was made, the players skated to the faceoff circle or back to the bench for a line change.
Now some might say the lack of after-the-fact scraps was due to the fact these kids weren’t playing high-level hockey and aren’t destined to anytime soon. That may be, but I don’t care. I care about the watchability of the game – high level or not – and what I’ve come to consider normal really isn’t.
The Rangers and Tornadoes reminded me that normal hockey involves playing hard between the whistles, not after them. Normal hockey involves respect for your opponent and the game. Grinding your sweaty, leather palm into a guy’s face or getting your stick up under his chin because he’s within two feet of your goalie is not respectful and I don’t believe it’s intimidating, either – everyone does it, all the time. What it does is make grown men look like petulant children, while killing the flow of the game.
I understand it’s emotional out there on the ice, especially in the high-stakes world of pro hockey. But just as kids learn from watching their heroes in the pros, in this case I think the pros could take a lesson from the kids.
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