Canadians may be polite and understated. They may take turns at four-way stop signs. (Well, OK, not always, but often.) They may have a foreign minister who preaches the virtues of "soft power" in diplomacy. But hockey lets them demonstrate without a doubt that they are not wimps.
So much so, in fact, that as young players keep getting bigger, stronger, and faster on the ice, concerns about rough play and injuries have whizzed more into view. Parents are thinking twice about letting their kids get involved.
To address this, the youth hockey organization here has come up with a simple innovation that just might repeal the rule that "nice guys finish last."
It's called the sportsmanship point system. Each team that completes a game without exceeding a certain number of minutes in the penalty box picks up an extra point.
The system has been in place for several years in the recreational "C" leagues of the Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association (PCAHA), the umbrella organization for the 19,400 young hockey players in British Columbia's Lower Mainland (Vancouver and exurbs). This year the system has been introduced in the competitive "A" and "B" leagues for the first time. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the extra point is making for cleaner play. Hockey organizations elsewhere in Canada have expressed interest in the system, too.
On a Saturday at the Richmond Ice Centre, a suburban temple of hockey not far from the Vancouver airport, the word is that coaches and players are mindful of the opportunity to pick up the extra point.
Jeff Green, in his first year as coach of an "Atom" team, an age class for 10- and 11-year-olds, says the sportsmanship point "definitely" makes a difference. "However young they are, they want to win," he says. "They know that if they play clean, the extra point gives them a faster, easier way of reaching that goal. It's a lot different from what I was brought up with in Nova Scotia. Back then, the ultimate way to win was to make sure the other team couldn't skate."
George Kilpatrick, another Atom coach, says, "If [the sportsmanship point] means something to the coach, then it means something to the kids. We've made it clear that we strive to win as many points as we can."
Independent of the sportsmanship point, the PCAHA already had stated "tolerances" for penalties. A coach whose team consistently racks up penalties above the tolerance is supposed to get a talking-to, or more, from the association.
Emiel Schreuder of Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, president of the PCAHA executive committee, says that since the new rule was introduced, one league has gone from a majority of its teams over the tolerances to a majority under. He says he doesn't expect penalties to be eliminated, but the sportsmanship point should help cut off "the extra stuff," as he puts it - "when a penalty's been called and the player is skating off to the penalty box, and he gives the referee his two bits' worth."
But not everybody is a fan of the extra point. "It doesn't really show the caliber of hockey the team is playing," says Mike Sulentic of Richmond, who coaches 12- and 13-year-olds. He too sees too much emphasis being placed on minor infractions.
He also sees the current practice of protecting young players from full body-checking until they are 15 as counterproductive. If they started small, they would grow up learning the safe techniques for full-contact play, rather than having to acquire them later.
In a match using the new system, both sides can win the extra point. It counts like a goal scored in the usual manner and can tie or decide a game. And because teams advance in the playoffs by a round-robin competition, each point scored in a series of games can help a team stay alive longer in the competition.
This can have a downside, suggests Nosrat Mulford, whose two sons play on Richmond teams. "If they get extra points, this puts them up against bigger, stronger teams," she says, and the possibility of a mismatch and attendant risk of injury is there.
Some players may not be paying so much attention to the system. "I'm too busy actually trying to play," says Marcus Evinger of coach Green's team. But Joe Morellato, another league official, adds, "When two or three kids buy into it, they all start policing each other."