The Ice Dogs cometh, usually with their fists

The brutality of a small Western hockey league shows trickledown effect

As the final seconds tick off the clock, a young hockey player with the Bozeman Ice Dogs wheels toward the opposing goaltender and slashes him with his stick. Before referees can intervene, players from both benches empty onto the ice in a mele.

Punches are thrown. Fans in the stands, rising in rowdy approval, encourage the teenage athletes to bare their fists.

Welcome to the American West Junior A Hockey League, a rough-and-tumble world where kids with dreams of playing pro hockey are encouraged to brawl to sell tickets, provide "good family entertainment," and win games.

This winter, chronic outbreaks of fighting, bench-clearing brawls, and a spate of serious injuries have made the West a flash point in the controversy over escalating violence in hockey - and all of sport.

Between big-league baseball players charging the mound any time pitchers appear to challenge them to football players shoving referees and flaunting the notorious "cutthroat" neck gesture, youths have never been exposed to more examples of poor sportsmanship, sociologists say.

Among the big four of spectator sports, however, hockey stands apart in reputation. And there is growing concern that acts of extreme violence at the junior and professional tier are having a negative influence on youth behavior.

"Other than in the boxing ring, the hockey rink is the only place in society where people can drop their gloves and go after each other with minimal repercussions," says Steven McCaw, a professor in health and recreation studies at Illinois State University in Normal. "Violence is glamorized in ways it didn't used to be."

Canada's bold reforms

Now, the nation that made hockey synonymous with violence - Canada - is taking bold steps to ensure that young players leave the rink with basic principles of respect rather than the "thug" behavior they see in the NHL. The actions are so sweeping that they have captured the attention of the American sports establishment. Among the efforts taking hold:

*Hockey players sew patches, shaped like "Stop" signs into their jerseys to serve as constant reminders that checking from behind is dangerous.

*Where parents have become unruly, they have been banned from arenas, sometimes leaving kids to play before empty seats in the stands.

*In some youth leagues, teams are rewarded with an extra point in the league standings if they do not surpass an established threshold for penalties in a game.

*Players who attack others are not only ejected from games but, in some cases, also forced to undergo counseling before they are allowed to return.

These reforms fly in the face of hockey

as it has been played for decades. More than half a century ago, Canada's legendary promoter of professional hockey, Conn Smythe, justified fighting by telling his players they would never win on the ice if they weren't tough enough to beat their opposition in a back-alley brawl.

"For years, hockey administrators have justified their tolerance for fighting by saying intimidation of other teams is needed if you are going to win," Mr. McCaw says.

But two years ago, McCaw studied that very premise. He and John Walker, a medical doctor with the Texas Youth Commission, pored over statistics for 18 Stanley Cup series played between 1979 and 1997. They found that in 13 of 18 Stanley Cup finals, teams that played with more violence and, as a result, accrued more penalties, went home losers.

"Statistics show that if you turn the other cheek when you feel the urge to retaliate, and let the other teams get the penalties, then in the end you'll come out on top," says McCaw.

Younger and younger fighters

But Gary Kline, president of the Bozeman Amateur Hockey Association, has watched as the aggressive behavior of professionals and local junior players is adopted by wide-eyed youngsters. He remembers one incident in which a five-year-old player had no interest in completing skating drills, but when a junior player offered a lesson in how to fight, the child's attention perked up.

"We've had some parents unfamiliar with hockey signing up their kids to play because they thought it was a place they could legally fight," says Mr. Kline, a dentist. "They miss the point."

Many coaches here decry the violence at all levels, but they say referees are pressured by team owners and fans to let players fight.

In his first season as coach of the Butte Irish two years ago, Mike Corbett's team played in Bozeman, where his players were showered with beer by Bozeman fans. A few attacked his players as they were leaving the ice, and when Corbett tried to intercede, he too was punched.

Need for discipline

As a former player at Denver University in one of college hockey's premier leagues, Mr. Corbett understands that the dreams of his players are dependent upon discipline. "I owe it to my athletes to teach them how to be better, smarter hockey players, not to transform them into nightly participants in 'The Gong Show,' " he says.

A backlash against the fighting might be gaining momentum. During a recent game, players for the Billings Bulls, at the behest of their coach, dropped to the ice and refused to fight when they were challenged by players from the Bozeman Ice Dogs. The crowd in Bozeman booed, but Billings won the game, and Bozeman, which has gained a reputation as brawlers, sits at the bottom of the standings.

In the end, amateur coach Kline says, violence is hockey's worst enemy. "We know that if this sport becomes too violent, parents will not let their kids play," he says. "This should be an exciting sport to watch. It is also a safe game to play."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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