A recent fight at a kids' hockey game has raised the question of violence in hockey once again, but experts say hockey fights are just a symptom of a much larger problem.
The brawl broke out among 8-year olds at a novice triple-A game in Guelph, Ontario in late November.
Footage of the brawl posted online showed many in the team pushing and shoving, and two of the tikes throwing punches like typical NHL enforcers (a.k.a. goons)—which is exactly the problem, says Dr. Gordon Bloom an expert in sports psychology at McGill University.
Professional hockey players set a violent example that younger players try to emulate, says Bloom. "What happens in the pros trickles down."
Bloom has seen a dramatic change in youth hockey over the last thirty years and says players don't respect each other the way they used to. As a peewee coach himself, he's seen it first hand, most recently when his team made it to the finals in a tournament and won the game 2-to-1.
"The second the buzzer went to end the game a kid on the opposing team turned to one of my kids, cross checked him right in the stomach and sent the kid flying across the ice, for no reason other than he lost a tournament and figured it doesn't matter now whatever I do...Kids like that should be thrown our for the rest of the season."
Rarely are penalties that severe, however, and the higher players make it in the hockey hierarchy, the more that behavior is implicitly encouraged.
Bloom points to the example of former Vancouver Canuck Todd Bertuzzi who punched Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche in the back of the head from behind. The punch fractured three of Moore's vertebrae and gave him a grade three concussion.
Bertuzzi was suspended for the rest of the season and pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of assault. He received a conditional discharge and a year on probation. In 2005 he returned to the NHL. However, Moore hasn't been able to play since.
The blow was an apparent retaliation for Moore's attack on Canuck Captain Markus Näslund in a game three weeks earlier. Näslund suffered a minor concussion, a bone chip in the elbow and was out of the lineup for three games.
"It sent the wrong message out to a lot of youth players," says Bloom, of Bertuzzi's relatively light punishment.
"You know if you get mad at someone, it's okay to punch them in the face," says Bloom, verbalizing that message. "Well, if you do that on the street, you go to jail. Why can you do it in a hockey game?"
But retaliatory violence in the NHL is only part of the picture. Bloom says he is "100 per cent" convinced there is a direct relationship between violence in hockey and violence in other forms of popular entertainment.
"The more violence kids watch on TV, the more violent they're going to become. It's all messages in all forms of society... and there's research to support that as well."
Bloom says research has found that kids that are more violent on the ice have attitudes that are more accepting of violence off the ice.
That was also the message from Hockey Canada, the official governing body of hockey in Canada. Paul Carson, director of development at Hockey Canada says the organization isn't overly concerned about violence at the youth hockey level but there is concern from a societal perspective. He wonders how the desensitization of violence in society translates into everyday activities.
"Youngsters can watch the six o'clock news and they can watch some pretty horrific stuff, live television."
He doesn't see that violence necessarily translating into sport but does think it is an issue. "I think it's a much broader concern that society should have...To me that becomes more the broader issue."
Unlike in the past, in youth hockey these days the sport has changed from a winter past-time to a year-round activity. With summer camps and indoor rinks, youngsters can play 10 months out of the year, and many of them do.
Ralph Waplef coaches high school hockey for St. John's Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. He says that over 30 years of coaching he's seen a change.
"It's certainly gotten much more competitive...from a younger age and all the way through."
Waplef isn't sure that competitiveness translates into violence but notes that kids who play in a high-school league may be restrained by that league's stiffer penalties. In high school hockey league fights are taken more seriously than in regular youth hockey leagues. Besides getting kicked out of the game, kids face a school suspension.
It's a scenario Bloom would like to see in the pros as well. He points out that fighting in Olympic hockey is just not accepted and if players do fight they are out of the game.
That's what happened at the World Junior Hockey championships in 1987. Canada was a shoo-in to win the gold until the whole team decided to mix it up with Russia. After 20 minutes of fighting both teams were kicked out and Finland took the honours.
Bloom said that kind of zero tolerance for violence is what is needed in the NHL but he knows violence is part of the NHL's marketing strategy.
"Stop thinking about your wallets and your bottom line and start realizing the more this happens in your game the greater danger it potentially causes to society by sending messages of violence to all the kids and adults who are watching the game," Bloom says to NHL heads.