Canadian hockey has evolved on the ice—can its culture follow?

Canadian hockey has evolved on the ice—can its culture follow?

It’s an annual tradition at Active for Life to reflect on the state of Canadian hockey. It began in 2014, when we coined the phrase “hockey’s new normal” to describe the type of hockey that should be taught to kids: a game prioritizing the long-term development of young players rather than immediate victory at all cost, a game in which skills development is the norm and intensity of play does not equate to violence.

But even more important than these changes to the game itself is the development of a hockey culture focused on making the game fun for kids, so that they remain hockey players for life.

From our perspective, hockey is evolving in the right direction. As the recent victory of the Canadian Junior squad at the world championships showed, speed and skills are now well-established as the gold standards at the higher levels of the game and the main objectives when developing young players.

As well, the idea that parents and coaches need to lighten up when it comes to minor hockey (and all youth sports) is spreading at the grassroots. One of Canada’s largest fast food chains even released a video ad emphasizing the fact that parents and coaches should focus on making hockey fun for kids.

Tensions between the old and new culture of hockey

Looking back at the “on-ice” evolution of hockey over the years, one fact stands out: every change in the game has fueled debates between hockey’s “old guard” and those who have pushed for changes. A good example of the ideological tug of war came when body-checking was banned for all players in pee-wee (U13) and some bantam leagues (U15). Another example was the many comments posted by parents and coaches in response to this article about Hockey Canada mandating smaller ice surfaces play for younger players across the country. 

Although divisive at first, these major changes to hockey were driven by science and the need to make the game better for kids. And now hockey finds itself at another crossroads with other badly needed changes—off the ice, this time.

The month that changed hockey culture

One day, historians might look back at November 2019 as a critical moment when hockey’s culture changed forever. In a period of a few weeks, TV commentator Don Cherry was fired after delivering a racist rant on air. As well, two NHL coaches—Bill Peters and Mike Babcock—were dismissed for allegedly abusing players, both mentally and physically. 

In response to these events, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that the NHL “will not tolerate abusive behaviour in any kind,” and announced a four-point plan to eliminate inappropriate behaviour in coaching. This could be the most important change in hockey’s history. 

There was a time when intense verbal abuse and harassment were accepted as “motivational tools” for some revered professional coaches. That justified similar behaviours from some coaches in minor hockey. Physical abuse by coaches was never openly supported within hockey culture, but history shows it was employed by some, and, too often, overlooked.

For years, minor sport has pushed to eliminate such behaviours, but the fact that the NHL is now flexing its disciplinary muscles will ensure that the imaginary grey area used to justify such behaviours is abolished, and make it clear that abusing players in any way is unacceptable.

Related podcast: What to do about abuse in sport?

Make hockey a safe and welcoming environment for all

The first priority is that all hockey players are safe from any kind of abuse and feel welcome to participate. This is true from the youngest players taking their first strides on the ice to seasoned professionals. Every hockey parent is part of a quiet majority. We have a moral obligation to speak up if we witness abuse.

As hockey continues to adapt and improve on and off the ice, it will not only lead to a better quality sport experience for our kids and better player retention, but it will prevent a great amount of suffering among children and youth who deserve a safe place to play sports.

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