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How parents (and their lawyers) are killing minor hockey

From 2014: Inside the madness that is driving kids, volunteers and referees out of Canada’s game
Photograph by Jaime Hogge

Kasey Dennis is a rarity among minor hockey parents, not because she loses her temper, but because she admits it. “It’s the adrenalin,” says Dennis, whose nine-year-old son, Evan, plays for the Winter Hawks, a minor atom AA team from Innisfil, Ont. “It’s a team sport. You want them to win. You get caught up in the moment, and I’m the type of person who doesn’t take stuff sitting down.” She recalls an incident last season that brought her as close as she’s been to physical confrontation at a children’s sporting event. The Hawks were playing a tournament game in Richmond Hill, Ont. She could hear parents of players on the opposing team calling to their youngsters. “Take ’em out!” they were saying.

“My jaw dropped,” Dennis says. “I was like, really? Really? The worst part was, you could see the kids were actually trying do it.” Afraid of what might happen if she got up and confronted the offending parents, Dennis instead removed herself to the arena lobby, pacing the rubberized floor until her blood cooled. It’s a behaviour-modulation strategy she’s used many times since—one with which nine-year-old players can surely relate: “I give myself a time-out.”

She’s telling her story between games at a two-rink complex in Mississauga, Ont., where so far things have unfolded much more peacefully—minor hockey as seen in a Canadian Tire ad. The Hawks have won 4-0 and lunch beckons at a nearby pizza joint. But a peewee game between teams from Vaughan and Willowdale is under way on the other ice surface, and Dennis has no sooner hustled Evan out the door than it suddenly turns sour. Seconds before the final buzzer, a player from Vaughan shoves an opponent into the boards, and angry shouts rise from the seats. Willowdale parents holler over the glass at the referee, who pleads for calm, assuring them that the offence will be penalized as the player rises uninjured. But the yelling and finger-jabbing goes on and, after a few moments, the official loses his own temper. “I told you it’s going to be dealt with!” he snaps. “What more do you think I can do?”

Mapping the violence: Incidents of minor hockey violence in Canada from 2008 to 2014

Confrontations with officials. Shouting matches between coaches. Actual fist fights between adults in the stands. Increasingly, this is a face of minor hockey that Canadians seem willing to accept. So invested have parents and coaches become in tournament outcomes, or ice time distribution of seven-year-olds, that the sport seems mired in recurring cycles of hostility, which in the last six weeks have produced no fewer than three cases of physical altercations between adults at minor hockey events. The game’s behind-the-scenes disputes are no less rancorous for their lack of violence. Families with NHL ambitions for their youngsters have in recent years stepped up efforts to undermine minor hockey associations’ authority to tell them where they can play, dragging everyone from volunteer coaches to Hockey Canada officials into court over issues the judiciary thought it settled long ago. Some families have even resorted to human rights commissions, where they’ve protested the gross unfairness of their children’s plight.

Together, these cases reflect a level of obsession that is exacting an enormous toll on the minor hockey system. Local volunteers must now follow lawyer-designed protocols to deal with problem parents, lest the matter wind up in civil or criminal courts. At the country’s biggest association, the Greater Toronto Hockey League, meetings over discipline or player transfers have evolved into a kind of shadow justice system—complete with lawyers, scheduled hearings and rules of procedure. The effects are wide-ranging: frazzled organizers, rising registration fees to cover legal costs and stagnant enrolment due to a growing sense among young families that the game is consumed by adversarial politics. One president of a minor hockey association in southern Ontario told Maclean’s that for the first time, she couldn’t find a coach for one of her bantam teams. “There were four or five fathers on the team who had their coaching cards,” says Donna Horan, of New Tecumseth. “But they wouldn’t do it. I chalk that up to abuse. It’s not the game and it’s not the kids. It’s the adults that ruin it.”

Associations are responding with the few tools they have, including an online course called Respect in Sport that urges adults in the game to consider their behaviour. But the most troubling aspect of the current drift may be how many view it as the norm. Back in Mississauga, there will be no incident report over the exchange at the peewee game, no complaint to minor hockey authorities, not so much as a preachy memo to parents. Eventually, the angriest father storms away to his son’s dressing room, and the shouting dies down. Yet everyone involved—officials, coaches, players and fans—leaves the building wearing a scowl, and if you were taking your first look at Canada’s beloved national game, you might have been surprised to learn this was something people did for fun. Just another day in minor hockey? Say it ain’t so.

It’s unfair, of course, to disparage all hockey adults, because the truly destructive ones represent a small subset of the thousands of gate-openers, bake-sale organizers and 50-50 sellers who are rightly celebrated throughout the game. Hockey Canada estimates that hard-core troublemakers constitute about two per cent of those involved in amateur hockey. But that has been scant comfort to hockey administrators, as the dread species parentis horribilis has made its presence felt more than ever.

Front and centre in winter 2013 was Jason Boyd, the hockey dad in Selkirk, Man., who was seen in smartphone footage threatening to “cave in” another father’s glasses. Boyd, who was holding an infant in his arms at the time, had called the second man’s 15-year-old son “a midget,” saying the boy’s stature made hits to his head unavoidable. When the small player’s dad protested, Boyd wheeled on him, flushed with fury. For a few tense moments, it looked as if he might fulfill his promise.

He was banned from arenas throughout Winnipeg for the balance of the season, yet he had no sooner apologized publicly than Vancouver coach Martin Tremblay received a 15-day jail sentence for tripping 13-year-old players during the post-game handshake, an incident that also made headlines across the country. Both incidents served as prelude to last March’s brawl during a bantam C tournament in Tweed, Ont., near Belleville, between local parents and visiting fans from the Six Nations Reserve. Footage captured on a smartphone showed a woman calling an opposing fan a “f–king idiot” and challenging her to a fight. Within a minute, men and women alike were grappling, throwing punches, tumbling over the seats in a low-rent spectacle that, at last count, had drawn 376,000 clicks on YouTube.

These incidents added to many more reported across the country—in Canmore, Alta.; Port Perry, Ont.; and Val-des-Monts, Que.—to create the sense, of late, that the sport is suffused in hostility. In 2013, a city police officer in Guelph, Ont., was arrested following an altercation with a linesman who’d officiated a game the officer’s 17-year-son had played in. A few weeks later, three women—24, 34 and 54 years old—were charged for alleged punching and hair-pulling in the stands of a children’s game in Lethbridge, Alta. The same month, a coach and an assistant coach in Amherst, N.S., were suspended after one head-butted the other in front of their seven- and eight-year-old charges. Astonishingly, the men were coaching the same team; they had disagreed, it seems, over what instructions to give the kids.

It’s become commonplace to denounce such behaviour and move on, as if the game were suffering no lasting effect. But to grasp its impact, one need only look back on the past few weeks through the eyes of Monte Miller, the executive director of Hockey Winnipeg, an umbrella organization encompassing 10 minor hockey associations in the Manitoba capital. Miller was caught off-guard earlier this month when a newspaper reporter phoned for comment on a punch-up involving parents from two Winnipeg-area teams at a tournament in West Fargo, N.D. The story was spreading quickly by text and tweet: According to witness accounts, a mother from a team based in River East had burst into the dressing room of opposing Selkirk, with her husband following close behind. Words were exchanged with opposing coaches, and then fists began flying—all before the eyes of eight-year-old players. As tournament organizer Mike Prochnow put it: “The kids were terrified.”

Police were summoned, and while they didn’t lay charges, Prochnow, understandably, invited both teams to pack up their gear and go back to Canada. But back in Winnipeg, Miller’s work was just starting. His next seven days were consumed by the tasks of compiling witness statements, game sheets and incident reports so his organization could sanction the principal combatants. When dealing with adults this dialled-in to their children’s sport, he explains, old-school remedies such as heart-to-heart talks and conciliatory handshakes no longer suffice. “I hate to say it, but it’s become almost legal,” he says. “You have a defendant and a plaintiff, and you have to make sure each one knows exactly what the issues are. We prepare these packages that go out to all the parties. There has to be full disclosure.”

Face-to-face meetings with the adults would follow, and the next Monday—more than a week after the incident—the coaches and parents received notice of their sanctions. Miller refused to disclose the punishments, which could involve bans on the adults from Winnipeg arenas, because he’s worried that he’d be seen to be litigating through the media. Already, some of the parties have given notice they’d be appealing to Hockey Manitoba, Miller notes, so he must now supply information packets to the provincial body, and appear if asked at a hearing, where it’s possible that one of the adults will appear with a lawyer. Still, there is no concealing Miller’s frustration. “I spend all of my day dealing with incidents like this,” he fumed during a news conference in Winnipeg the day after news of the Fargo brawl broke. “Parents arguing in the stands, people yelling at officials. Everything gets bogged down. You’re so mired in the two per cent of people who can’t behave themselves that it affects the other 98 per cent.”

Miller’s ire is shared by administrators in a growing number of locales.In Tottenham, Ont., a father was banned from local minor midget games after attacking a 19-year-old linesman as the official tried to eject the man’s son from the ice. Provincial police showed up, and the incident dragged on for hours, ending just before midnight after the weary linesman decided not to press charges (he accepted the man’s apology, instead). Still, the league’s president, Donna Horan, lost days attending meetings and pushing through the paperwork required to issue the ban, while her chief referee tried to smooth the feathers of the rattled linesman.

In the rare instances where police do go ahead with criminal charges, the burden for everyone grows. In a 2002 case that now stands as a cautionary tale, Grant Eakin, the father of current NHL player Cody Eakin, stood accused of threatening during a game in Winnipeg to “break every bone” in the face of a woman whose son played for a rival team. Police and prosecutors spent 14 months interviewing witnesses, assembling documents, disclosing evidence and adjourning hearings before the case reached trial. During four days in court, 10 witnesses testified, while audiotaped statements to police were entered as evidence. In the end, the judge dismissed all the charges.

These are, of course, the extremes. But to long-time observers of Canadian minor hockey, they indicate a worrisome attitude some fear is poisoning the grassroots of the game. In addition to a shortage of coaches, for example, many jurisdictions are scrambling to fill their referee rosters, as about 10,000 officials across the country leave the sport each year. On March 1, two regional executives with the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) sent an email warning local presidents that the officiating pool in their area had been taxed to the limit. The memo implored organizers to speak to coaches and parents about “verbal tirades” raining down on refs from the stands, adding: “We’ve dealt with too many complaints of adults failing to conduct themselves appropriately. If you don’t have something good to say, zip it! The verbal abuse of officials and opponents must stop.”

The little research that’s been done on referee abuse certainly points to more pervasive causes than a small fringe of troublemakers. In a 2012 survey of 632 Ontario referees, nine out of 10 officials said they’d been recipients of aggression and anger, with just over half reporting that it caused them to lose control of games. Parents and coaches were more likely sources of abuse than players, according to the study, which was published in the Canadian Journal of Sports Medicine, and the details provided in writing by some 374 of the officials were harrowing. More than a third reported being punched, pushed or assaulted with a stick during games, while 12 per cent said they’d been spat upon. “[A] parent came on the ice and punched the referee in the face,” said one, while another reported: “Have had a fan pour a full hot chocolate onto my partner over the glass.”

The survey was organized by Alun Ackery, an emergency room doctor at St. Michael’s Health Centre in Toronto, who had hoped to gain insight into hockey-related concussions. He quickly concluded that the environment of hostility and disrespect as described by referees has raised the risk of injury to young players. But he also felt as if he were staring at an elephant in the room. “This sort of behaviour has become socially accepted, and I’m not sure why,” says Ackery, a beer-league player and long-time hockey fan. “I have a friend whose 15-year-old son referees, and the amount of abuse he takes—the name-calling, the berating—it’s astonishing.”

His questions now, like those of Miller, go to the very DNA of the game. Why can’t we change that atmosphere? Why have countless publicity campaigns by Hockey Canada and its regional branches failed to change it? Is it us? Or is there something about hockey—the contact, the aggression, the fighting—that brings out our worst inclinations? They are conundrums that have hung over the sport since the first indoor game in Montreal, which, appropriately enough, ended in a scuffle. Ever since that night in 1875, hockey has shown two faces: the nostalgic version depicted on painted dinner plates—kids in toques chasing pucks over frozen ponds—and the sport that is perpetually one errant stick away from a line brawl.

To the poetically inclined, this dichotomy encapsulates the Canadian soul: gallant, rugged, in need of a release valve. Yet that understanding has allowed questionable habits to calcify. No mass-participation sport accommodates fist-fighting as junior and pro hockey do, and few tolerate the level of dissent toward on-ice officials. And of the many iterations of hockey that have sprung up around the world over the last half-century, none generates the sorts of parent-coach-fan eruptions seen in Canada: Sweden, for example, has yet to supply YouTube with a single video of adults squabbling in the stands at a minor hockey game, despite having 64,200 people enrolled in the sport.

So it’s not without reason that critics so often link ugly incidents off the ice to the physical contact on it. Numerous coaches and organizers have told Maclean’s that Hockey Canada’s decision to eliminate bodychecking in peewee in 2013 lowered the temperature in games between 11- and 12-year-olds. And when we performed comparative searches of media and legal databases, we found that non-contact sports endure nowhere near the rate of parent eruptions seen in hockey. Consider, for example, that nearly 700,000 Canadian kids are registered in youth soccer—about 200,000 more than in minor hockey. Yet a search dating back to 2009 turned up only 154 newspaper stories involving parents and assault in soccer, compared to 884 in hockey.

Still, fighting is not allowed in minor hockey. And long-time hockey people ascribe parental outbursts less to rugged play than the outsized importance adults are attaching to what happens on the ice. More common than the hair-pulling hockey mom, they say, is the highly motivated, professional one plowing tens of thousands into her child’s minor hockey; or the full-time, paid coach jockeying to recruit nine-year-olds to his elite team. Many of these people are no less committed than the hotheads, but when things don’t go their way, they’re as likely to threaten legal action as to scream from the stands.

Those responses are not nearly as visible as the eruptions that make YouTube. But they’re every bit as burdensome, and of that there is no better illustration than “hearing night” at the headquarters of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. There, twice a week in a warehouse-style building located north of the city, ashen-faced youngsters await their fate while their jittery parents pace the halls, rehearsing arguments over suspensions for dirty play or, increasingly, whether their kids should be able to switch teams. The GTHL has a reputation as a pathway to the NHL—its elite clubs often offer tutoring with former NHL players, some of whom coach teams—which has made it a magnet for the country’s most ambitious players, parents and coaches. As such, its disputes are those of Canadian hockey writ large: In nearly half of the 120 hearings held in 2013, players’ families arrived with lawyers in tow. A few even brought along professional agents.

Occasionally, one of these cases turns into a knock-down, drag-out affair whose reverberations are felt across the country. In fall 2013, the league went to court against parents whose 14-year-old son wanted to play for an elite bantam AAA team in Oakville, despite having already agreed to play for a lower-tier team in Goulding Park, located in North York. The boy had taken up goaltending two years earlier—late, by hockey standards—and appeared to have a gift. So his parents quietly arranged a June tryout with the Oakville club, two months after he’d signed a registration card committing him to play this season for Goulding Park. When he made the cut, however, he was stunned when Goulding Park refused to release him. “I spend all of my free time practising and working with my trainers so that I can be the best goalie and help my team win,” the boy said in an affidavit. “I just want to develop and be around better players.”

Dig deeper through the court filings, though, and a more specific agenda emerges. His father had signed him up in the GTHL in the first place, the family’s submissions reveal, because its best players “have the possibility of moving on to elite designations and professional hockey in Canada and abroad.” The Oakville team, they argued, would expose the boy to professional coaching staff led by Sudarshan “Sudsie” Maharaj, a former goaltending coach of the New York Islanders. It would also get him face time with professional scouts. “[The boy] dreams of playing in the NHL,” the family said in its factum, “and playing for the Oakville Rangers at the AAA level clearly offers him the best opportunity to move toward his goal.”

The case was settled out of court just before Christmas: The boy went to play in the U.S. But it was not resolved before Hockey Canada intervened on the GTHL’s behalf, arguing that the player was attacking the fabric holding the minor hockey system together. Never mind that less than one tenth of one per cent of minor hockey players ever skate in the NHL, the national body argued; without carding rules, and related restrictions preventing players from playing outside their home communities, organizers have no way of ensuring a reasonable level of competition, while coaches couldn’t hold together the rosters they’ve assembled. (The North York team, for one, was left scrambling to find a goalie because, by that point of the season, almost all were committed to other teams.)

The tendency of judges to agree with this logic has only caused hockey-mad parents to get more creative. In 2004, a family from Midland, Ont., claimed that residency restrictions preventing their son from playing in the GTHL violate, among other legal covenants, the Ontario Discriminatory Business Practices Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That latter gambit drew a tart response from Justice Guy DiTomaso of the Ontario Superior Court, who noted that the Convention was intended to protect children from neglect and exploitation, not “to govern rights of 13-year-old boys in Ontario who wish to play for one AAA team as opposed to another.” Yet, in 2012, a male player complained to Ontario’s human rights tribunal that residency rules discriminate on the basis of sex: Girls’ teams, he argued, which are fewer and farther-flung, aren’t subject to the same restrictions. The same year, in B.C., a player argued discrimination on the basis of family status after his parents clashed with his coach and the league transferred him to another team. His argument? His parents had made themselves so unpopular within the minor hockey system that he couldn’t expect a fair shake from its managers.

Both ploys failed, but the fanaticism driving them exerts an ever greater burden on the system, says Michael Penman, a board member of the GTHL who serves as its legal adviser. With the constant threat of litigation hanging over it, the league has beefed up its hearing process into a shadow justice system designed to ensure due process that will be upheld in court. Each hearing involves three directors, and the adjudicators have all been schooled by Penman in the ways of natural justice: All parties must get ample notice, cross-examinations are permitted and optics are everything—which is to say, no cozy chats in the corridors with parties who happen to be friends.

Sometimes, says Penman, even this isn’t enough. “I spend a lot of my time in telephone hearings with people who say they’ve moved to Toronto so their kids can play in the GTHL,” he says with a sigh. “We have to determine whether it’s a legitimate move, or somebody’s just opened up a post office box.”

“Stressing. Starting to blame it on the players. I don’t like that. It’s just a game and we’re supposed to be having fun. But some parents can get way to into it. I think they need to calm down, because they’re not even the ones playing.”

The speaker is 11-year-old Matthew D’Alessandro, a peewee select player from Etobicoke, Ont., and while he has no complaint about how his own parents behave, his outlook reflects the weight overwrought adults exert on youngsters—even if they’re not the sort of grown-ups who get into scraps, or hire human rights lawyers. His views encapsulate the sentiments of numerous kids interviewed for this story by Maclean’s. They also echo 40 peewee-aged players in southern Ontario, who participated in a 2012 York University study on parental influence in hockey. When asked what they liked about the game, many spoke not of goals or big wins, but of intangibles. The camaraderie. The smell of a freshly flooded rink. The alone time spent with their moms or dads as they drive through early-morning darkness to practice.

Most seemed able to handle criticism given one-on-one after the game, says Jessica Fraser-Thomas, the kinesiology professor who led the project. What they didn’t appreciate was mom or dad calling them out within earshot of others. “Before parents comment,” says Fraser-Thomas, “they need to ask themselves whether the child is receiving this as, ‘Mum and dad are trying to help me,’ or as, ‘Oh, they’re criticizing me again. I suck.’ You need to be very careful about your timing, how it’s phrased and whether it’s in front of other people.”

Studies such as Fraser-Thomas’s are of growing interest to Hockey Canada, because they point to a link between parental obsessiveness and children’s interest in the game. In short: Gung-ho adults may be costing hockey young players. Since 2009, enrolment in tyke through atom (ages five through 10) has slid by about 6,300 players, or three per cent, while peewee, bantam and midget enrolment has dropped off by 7.4 per cent. Time commitment, expense and safety concerns all feed into these declines, say officials at Hockey Canada. But when the governing body teamed with hockey-gear-maker Bauer last summer to survey 875 families who’d kept their kids out of the game, the reason they heard most was, “Hockey just doesn’t seem fun.”

For the stewards of our national sport, that response is a red flag. In the past, they could count on about one in 10 Canadian children registering in hockey, thanks in most cases to parents who took great joy in the game when they were young. That ratio has slipped, as a greater share of children are born to immigrant families, to whom hockey seems a closed society of red-faced dads wearing leather-armed jackets. To change perceptions, Hockey Canada officials are pleading for a “cultural shift” that will make young families feel welcome. “We need to reach that parent just putting her kid into hockey, or the one already involved in the game, and make them aware how important their attitude is,” says Todd Jackson, senior manager of safety and insurance. “We need to shift away from misplaced enthusiasm to giving kids truly what they need: Fun. Development. The chance to be a team player.”

To get its message out, Hockey Canada is encouraging teams, local associations and regional branches to use an online primer called Respect in Sport, which is produced by the foundation started by former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy and is being made mandatory in a growing number of jurisdictions across the country. The animated video highlights obvious no-nos of sport parenting, from harassing officials to using guilt as a motivator (“Do you know how much mommy and daddy paid for this?”). Starting next season, parents, coaches and officials in all 31 of the OMHA’s leagues will be required to complete the $12, one-hour course, while other Ontario jurisdictions—including the GTHL—have left it to the discretion of individuals.

But Don Cherry recently used his Hockey Night in Canada pulpit to dismiss the move as a “money grab,” adding, “the two per cent of goofs are still going to be goofs.” And even proponents wonder whether it will work, given how past efforts to change attitudes have fallen flat. One widely applauded Hockey Canada ad campaign in the early 2000s challenged parents to put themselves in their kids’ skates; the slogan used: “Relax, it’s just a game.” The best TV spot featured a kid loudly critiquing his dad while the man tried to sink a putt on the golf course, shouting, “That was pathetic!” as the man misses. Yet the embarrassing incidents kept coming.

Moreover, Hockey Canada officials wonder whether highlighting hockey’s ugly side could be counterproductive. “If one of the reasons people are staying away is the perception of those challenges,” says Paul Carson, vice-president of development, “do you really want to put them centre-stage?” Like many, Carson laments what he sees as media’s preoccupation with bad hockey adults, which he believes exaggerates their influence. “Most parents are great people,” he says. But Todd Millar, a former president of Hockey Calgary who was pushed out in 2012 after venting frustration with hockey parents on his blog, sees things differently. For years now, he says, a reluctance to rock the boat has stopped the hockey community from confronting a problem that is now clearly hurting it. “Maybe the worst incidents are being magnified for all the right reasons,” he says. “If we stay on the same path, in 15 years, this won’t be Canada’s game.”

Photo by Todd Korol

The coach is looking sheepish. Down two key players, his peewee select team in west Toronto has just played to an entertaining shootout loss, and he is quietly pleased with the hard-earned point. But now, amid the spare sweaters and sticks in his club’s equipment room, he’s looking back on a decade behind the bench, and recalling his least fine hour.

It was 2012, in the middle of the playoffs, and the game had gone pear-shaped. A controversial call had cost his team a win and his kids were in despair. So, as the referee skated past his bench, the coach—whose name Maclean’s agreed to withhold—picked up a water bottle and gave the official a squirt. “I kind of knew him, so he’d come over saying he wanted to explain the call.” He laughs nervously, and flushes. “It’s not something I’m proud of. I think we got a bench minor. I shouldn’t have done it. It’s a bad example for the kids.”

If this was his worst crime, he’s in the shallow end of the minor hockey cesspool. Ackery’s referees’ survey, after all, included accounts of coaches coming onto the ice to engage officials in fist fights. But his discernible regret, long after the fact, points to a curious phenomenon among hockey adults who cross the line. “Outside the rink, they can be the nicest people,” says Horan, the New Tecumseth minor hockey president. “It’s almost like they check their brains when they come in the door.”

Whether hockey is bringing out their worst instincts, or their true characters, is an open question. But for people who keep the system running, it doesn’t much matter. In the last three seasons, Horan figures she’s lost at least seven volunteer convenors and off-ice officials due to parental overreaction. She’s tried to get her own son and his friends involved in coaching, but they don’t want to deal with the parents. Her concern for the long-term health of the game has risen to the point that she’s speaking out. Yet she holds little optimism that her voice will make a difference. About the best that can be hoped for now is that the worst offenders feel regret, rethink their outlook, adjust their behaviour. As the rueful coach in west Toronto put it: “You go home and you feel so bad. You wonder how you got so mad about something that happened in a kid’s game.”