The Family (Or most of them)

The Family (Or most of them)
The Family

December 1, 2007

Hockey Brawls and other Stupid Sports Silliness


This is a still shot from a video taken in Ontario in the past week or so of a hockey game INVOLVING EIGHT-YEAR-OLD KIDS that erupted into a brawl.

A brawl. Eight-year-old kids pushing each other to the ice and some pounding on one another, while at least one of the coaches was alleged to have spit on the other team's coach.

The game was stopped and never finished.

This has made national headlines across Canada and maybe even in other parts of the world.

When I heard about it and saw the video, I merely shook my head, grimaced and then yawned. This is outrageous, it's sad, it's many things. But it's not new.

Several years ago, I wrote a big series on violence in minor hockey for the newspaper I write sports for.

It was one of the most read, most contentious things I've ever penned, drawing hundreds of responses, both positive and negative, supportive and downright threatening to me.

You can say a lot of things about sport, but one of the things you can most certainly say is that it has its stupid moments, its dark side, its ugliness. And that includes all sports, not just hockey.

It extends from the youngest and most innocent and simply misguided to the oldest and most professional and elite who push all the envelopes of decency and what, at a grassroots level, should be merely games.

I've played hockey and almost every other sport and I've coached kids in hockey, baseball, basketball and football.

I've loved what sports has done for my life.

It's developed physical and mental agility, strength, determination and a healthy level of competitiveness that, when kept in context, can be a lifelong rewarding blessing. I think sports is a great thing that all kids should be exposed to.

The fact is, there are great athletes, great coaches, great parents, great sports administrators at all levels. But there are plenty of boneheads at all those levels too. And that's where the problems arise.

And our focus here is how a minor hockey league game involving eight-year-olds could erupt into a brawl. And this is what I've observed and this is what I think.

It starts with a culture that celebrates and idolizes those at the professional level who are stars earning millions but who do that by being what sport often wants them to be: Selfish, physically aggressive, overly competitive.

The fact they're sometimes people who shoot guns, who drive drunk, who beat and kill their spouses or their kids, who kill themselves because they're on steroids or other drugs to enhance their performance, is no coincidence.

It extends to their coaches, in my view the people most responsible for what their athletes do on the playing surface and what they think they can get away with in order to win.

But almost worst of all are the parents of the young kids who want their child to be the leading scorer, the toughest hitter, the best goaltender or whatever, for all the wrong reasons...

...So their kid can become a pro and make millions; so their child can get a free scholarship to college and live a charmed life; so the child can be the "winner" they aren't.

But in a more general way, because their child's success reflects on them and they live vicariously through their children, who become their little instruments or pawns on a pathway to parental success.

I've seen parents do things and say things to their kids you wouldn't believe. I've had to protect kids from their enraged parents during and after games, their children in tears after being yelled at or shaken or hit for "not performing."

As a parent, I've had to challenge coaches who did the same to my own kids or others as they took their need to win too far, benching some kids and refusing to allow them to play as they put their own son or daughter in instead.

But society at large is also responsible.

We support the same professional sports (themselves promoted and funded by huge corporations) that produce some of the worst role models of good behaviour any parent in their right mind could think of.

We go out and pay big money to watch them play even though we know that if they weren't athletically gifted, we'd consider them among the dregs of civilization and people we'd want to hide from our kids, not have them portrayed as role models.

In Canada, we tune into Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night to watch the games but also to hear a buffoon named Don Cherry, who sounds like a thug and dresses like an idiot, defend all the tough guys in the game.

All across North America, we plop down on our couches to watch the NFL every Sunday, Monday night and now Thursday night, a league filled with some of the worst bad-ass criminals or miscreants you could see anywhere.

And we're cheering them on, apparently oblivious to the sad irony here that, in the same way we all want to watch Britney Spears and other misfit stars crash before our very eyes, we want to watch professional sports hoodlums win a football game.

It's like we're addicted to characters crashing and burning and doing it on a glorified artificial stage that blinds us like a frozen deer staring into headlights, unable to turn away.

It all comes down to winning rather than how to play the game. And everyone, of course, wants to win because all of their heroes win. And they want to be like their heroes, to emulate what they do.

And those kids want to play. They want to be accepted as part of the team and to be loved by their parents and to be praised by their coaches. So if the coach tells a kid to "go out and hit that kid who just scored," they're going to do it.

The enticements of success are too great, the price for refusing too daunting. Their parents are yelling at them from the stands; their coaches are focusing on winning and winning only.

So if you're an eight-year-old, what are you going to do?

The coaches of the two teams involved in this hockey brawl have been suspended indefinitely. Police considered laying charges but did not, saying it's a matter better left to the minor hockey associations of the two teams.

Several players have also been suspended. This, like all other such incidents of its kind -- which are happening every day in community club rinks around this country -- will be forgotten.

The coaches will be suspended, possibly for a long time. But it won't change things. There will always be overly-competitive people involved in young kids' sports, teaching kids how to be overly-competitive.

There will always be moms and dads who can't just tell their kids to go and have fun, do your best and then come home with us, we still love you regardless. They can't leave it at that.

There will be community clubs and general managers of kids' sports teams whose motivation will be winning and making their own children the stars of their teams, with a 1-in-10,000 chance of turning pro.

We are a competitive species by nature, programmed to win and to do as well as we can. Brutal sport has been part of our existence since ancient times. Those of us who can't compete want those that follow us to be able to compete.

And we offer so much to those who can become elite athletes, no matter what the cost. The motivations are so great, the rewards so lucrative, that cheating is proliferating at the highest of levels, the Olympics.

And in virtually every other sport, professional or not. We, or our society through adulation or money, gives those people those incentives to cheat, to fight or whatever, because we'll pay them to do it.

With so many motivations and with so many poor role models at the top, this type of brawl involving eight-year-olds shouldn't be a surprise.

It should be accepted more as the consequence of the values of our society. And it's going on much more than you will ever know.

*DISCLAIMER: I want you to know there are some GREAT professional athletes and coaches out there and that, in my experience, most of them are terrific people with stable lives, incredible talent and context in their existence.
Many of them don't understand or even seek out the adulation they get from fans. They're well adjusted individuals who simply are very good athletes or coaches, and they do deserve our admiration and the respect of our kids.
But there are some wacky ones who, with our help, become icons despite their flaws, many of whom end up becoming the most visible to our kids because of the trouble they get themselves into or the dumb things they do.
The main problem in this case is the wannabe coaches, parents and other hangers-on at the grassroots levels who are in sport not for their kids or for the sport, but for themselves. That's my rant (as requested by Homo Escapeons).


  1. encore dude!
    brilliantly and intelligently written.
    i've seen parents go nuts at their kid's sports games.
    when damien still did gymnastics the parents were not allowed to sit inside the gym and watch the practices because they interfere even with coaching!
    very sad to put the kids under such pressure.

  2. Angel:

    Exactly. The parents are banned. Enough said. All youth sports should be about the kids, not the parents.

  3. It is sad, the pressures and expectations put on people, particularly people so young. Humans are competitive by nature, but some just take it way too far. I mean, in the long run, who cares who wins a game of soccer or whatever? Even if you win every game you ever play, you're still going to die at the end of it all. When you're lying on your deathbed, you'll say to yourself... I never helped an ill person, never donated to a charity, never loved anybody quite so much as I loved myself, never experienced the beauty and wonder of nature. BUT I WON EVERY DARN SOCCER GAME!!! People need some perspective.

  4. Stace:

    "Some take it way too far."

    That's what kids need to know, that it's all about their try and their effort, nothing else.

    It can kill some kids if they think they're the reason for a loss. And it can artificially inflate some kids who are led to believe they're responsible for a win.

    So the best way to look at is we're a team, and as in life, some do better, some do worse.

    But they're all part of the team, win or lose. It's all about the trying.


  5. Though I've taken issue with unethical coaches and refs over the years it's the rabid parents that get under my skin. My son is in his 9th year of soccer and since it's house league it's endless fun to watch and the pressure to win at all costs is, if not entirely absent, at least a whole lot less. I love these games and wouldn't miss a single one.

    Excellent post, as usual, WW.

  6. Andrea, my dear...

    You have raised an excellent point that should be emphasized.

    These eight-year-old kids were AAA hockey players. For those inside and outside Canada who wouldn't know, these kids were at the highest level of competitive hockey that they could be at.

    And what that means is they would be the best, and as the best they would be exposed to the ugliest and highest pressure to win and excel.

    And that's extremely important in the context of all that this is about.

    The beautiful thing you said to me, that made me smile, is that your son is in house league.

    That means that his whole existence is not predicated on him being a professional soccer player.

    It's more about him competing and havng fun and going home and being able to forget about it.

    And that's a beautiful thing.

    That is sport and competition in a perfect context. No expectations than trying your best.

    What says even more, lovely Andrea, is your comment that you wouldn't miss one of those games.

    And that is what your son will always remember...that you were there for him, not for a win.


  7. My jaw dropped in shock when I read about some of the behaviours you've witnessed from parents at their children's sporting events. I've gone to watch my young nieces and nephews play soccer and football and other sports and I've never seen that kind of behaviour... not from the parents or the coaches. So what you've written about youth sports really comes as a huge surprise to me.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your views about the benefits of sports and all the wonderful things it can bring to a child's upbringing. It's just a shame that the few rotten apples and rotten incidents get so much attention and examples of good sportsmanship are rarely, if ever, highlighted.

    Excellent post, by the way.

  8. Anna:

    I wish I could say it wasn't commonplace or that it was a rarity. The fact is, it isn't.

    There always seems to be one or two idiots in the crowd of parents, or one stupid coach, who can't let their need for winning go.

    It's sad to say that kids do need protection, sometimes, from their own parents' need for them to excel.

    Like I tried to say, there ARE some great parents and there ARE some great coaches out there.

    Maybe they're even in the majority.

    But in kids' sports, unfortunately, the ugliness is what rises to the top and is most obvious.

    Despite the somewhat negative take of my post, I still am positive about sports and, overall, the people who run it.

    The negatives do tend to circumvent or overshadow the positives, I agree, and that's not a good thing.

    The point of this post was not to say that everything is bad, only that the bad really IS bad.

    There is a lot of good. But I think parents need to really examine their motives and get a life.

    And if they have a life, and they can understand the beneficiaries of kids' sport are the kids, then they should be vigilant and make sure the people coaching their kids are good people.

    And that they're not making the experience all bad by applying their own unrealistic hopes and wishes for their kids to the games their kids play.

  9. Awesome post.

    Every kid, involved in that pathetic episode deserves to be suspended from playing for one full year.
    The coaches should be banned for life from coaching ANY sport.
    The parents who encouraged their children should be sterilized.

    Fighting in Hockey is Canada's Achilles Heel. It is the crack in the door that exposes our true nature as seething passive aggressive human time bombs.

    The reason that Hockey will NEVER be a huge sport in the American market is because of fighting. That's why more americans watch Women's ten pin bowling than watch the NHL.

    Fighting is back in the NHL and it proves that there are just too many half assed players. Bettman's methodical deconstruction of the league and reckless expansion plans have failed. Fighting should not be allowed under any circumstances..EVER!

    Watching my kids play baseball and soccer was usually really fun, but there seems to always be a couple of parents who ruin it for everyone. Usually a few of us were able to politely/blatantly embarrass the awful parents and get them to shut the f*ck up and move so that the 99% of the us could just sit and enjoy watching our kids have fun.

    Score goals, not punches!

  10. HE:

    OK, thanks.

    And your opinion stands as stated.

    But can I come back acha with this?

    Those kids are 8. They should be suspended for a game or two so they understand this is WRONG.

    But they're not responsible. Their coaches are. And/or their parents. And/or hockey in general.

    I agree with your suggested penalties for the coaches and parents.

    And, with your permission, I beg to differ about why hockey will never be accepted in the U.S.

    The Broad Street Bullies, the Philadelphia Flyers, sold out every game in the 70s.

    So did Don Cherry's Big Bad Bruins in Boston.

    Americans are the most aggressive people on the planet, en masse (not individually).

    That's where dog-fighting thrives. It's where guns are in every home (or guaranteed so by their Constitution). Boxing, WWE, all the most aggressive sports or semi-sports on earth, are born there with the almighty buck (not puck) in mind.

    No, I think Americans love the fisticuffs in hockey. I just don't think they like hockey.

  11. I think that you are sicks they just like the fighting...which is an even more depressing state of affairs than even I could have imagined.

  12. HE:

    Sad state of affairs indeed. But I've been doing more research on this today at work.

    Two major studies have been done in Canada on violence in hockey, and this debate has raged on for years, as you know.

    The findings of those reports and all other indepth analyses is that hockey doesn't need the violence within to survive and prosper.

    But it continues to have violence nonetheless, quietly condoned and encouraged by the people who run the game at every level.

    It's a blight on the game but it lives on forever.

  13. Well, so far, all your readers are in agreement.
    And, in the main, so am I.
    But I feel someone should point out that, along with the rabidly screming parents and coaches and spectators, some of your colleagues are guilty of fuelling these flames.
    Sure, there are good commentators and paper journalists, but more and more, I see linguistically-challenged morons howling for revenge and encouraging violence.
    If we are to rein in the on-field tantrums we need to apply the same rules off the field.
    So let's add editors to the list.


If you choose to use anonymous to comment, it is only fair that I reserve the right to obliterate your comment from my blog.