Zero-tolerance rule cleans up amateur hockey

Suspensions and expulsions for abuse of referees or other players have resulted in a quicker, cleaner game, experts say.

It takes more than a sentence in a rule book to change Derek Johnson's demeanor on the ice.

Big and physical, he's like a lot of guys lining up every night at rinks across the country: Ordinary men turned stick-wielding warriors riding on slivers of steel.

After 20 years of playing amateur hockey, Mr. Johnson says his grit hasn't worn off, but his tongue lashes a little more gently: Mostly gone are the swear words, comments about family lineage, and insinuations about romantic leanings that used to be standard hockey fare.

"These days, it's really more a matter of what you say compared to if you say something," says Mr. Johnson, a telecom engineer who moonlights as the right winger for the Double-A division The Whale at the Ice Forum in Duluth, Ga.

Despite outrage from some hockey diehards, a new zero-tolerance policy on swearing, referee abuse, board-banging, and other ungentlemanly behavior has, since its inception here in Duluth and other rinks last year, yielded promising results for USA Hockey, the main amateur hockey sanctioning body in the US. Fights are down, experts say, and tolerance for the kind of brutal language and body checks that made hockey both famous and infamous has decreased even among what some players like to call the knucklehead contingent: Guys who should be going to anger-management classes, but instead end up at the local rink.

"When you've had a bad day and you're under some stress, it does feel good to chuck somebody against a wall," says Todd Kays, founder of the Athletic Mind Institute in Dublin, Ohio. "But what happens is you gradually allow the boundaries of propriety to extend and then you start having people jawing at each other. What USA Hockey is trying to do is reestablish the boundaries again."

There are about 600,000 amateur hockey players in the US, who join a rich but often brutal tradition that goes back to the first indoor game played in 1875 in Montreal, where a fight broke out between hockey players and figure skaters who wanted their ice back.

Mr. Kays says the modern sport suffers from some of the very values that make it appealing to both fans and players: It draws aggressive personalities. There's also a rich history and pride around its full-contact nature, and the continual, fast-paced battles ratchets up tempers.

"Any time we have someone verbally bashing us, OK, we can handle that to a certain extent," says Kays. But when physical contact is added to the mix, "now you've taken it into a different realm."

Traditionalists like former Red Wing Gordie Howe say the game has its own brand of chivalry that shouldn't be watered down by too many rules. Asked last week by the Vancouver Sun about disrespect shown by the large numbers of blind hits into the boards in today's leagues, hockey's elder statesman replied that a player shouldn't be in a position to be hit headfirst into the boards. Respect is important, Mr. Howe mused, but self-respect is primary.

At stake for players are not just new minor penalties for swearing, but long-term suspensions and expulsions for abuse of referees and behavior that seems intended to injure other players.

But one of the main motivations for imposing the zero-tolerance standard, says Atlanta referee Tom Waters, concerns what referees need. Mr. Waters says that up to 60 percent of new referees were leaving the game because of abuse from players and parents.

The zero-tolerance campaign is having an effect, says Kays, who credits it with pushing more parents to seek help for kids who show too much aggression or anger.

Mr. Waters, the veteran referee, says the game has improved dramatically.

"I think the players and the refs have come together where there's now a common bond with respect for both sides," he says. "I think that was needed, and now that it's in place everybody is appreciating the game a little better."

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