There are many things I love about hockey that will never change. The atmosphere of the rink, the camaraderie and the speed, emotional drama and excitement of the sport are constants that truly make our game special. However, there really are times when I feel like I am a throwback to the days when dinosaurs and giants roamed the earth.
Today's blog is an Old-School Hockey Manifesto of sorts. I realize the sport changes and evolves. Some of the change is good -- players are in better physical condition, we have started to understand more about concussions, the game has grown by leaps and bounds in the United States and internationally, etc. I am not a reactionary.
However, there are also plenty of times where I think facets of the game I played and refereed have changed for the worse over the years.
For one thing, when I was playing and during most of my active refereeing career, clean bodychecks were not considered a call to drop the gloves. Just because a guy hits the ice hard doesn't automatically make it a dirty play. It doesn't mean the recipient of the hit has to start trash-talking with the player who bodychecked him, nor does it automatically mean a teammate has to make a beeline for the guy doling out the hit.
The distinction that I always drew, both as an enforcer and as a referee, in whether a hit merited a response: the purpose of the hit and whether it was a legitimate hockey play.
Was the opposing player trying to separate my teammate from the puck to force a turnover? Or was he trying to separate my teammate's head from his shoulders, puck or no puck?
Did the opposing player keep his elbow tucked in? Did he come up with the stick? Did he leave his feet? Was it a charge? An attempted low-bridge hit rather than a clean hip check? An "accidentally deliberate" knee-to-knee?
If it was a clean hit, I never had a problem with it, even if it was an aggressive hit with a heavy collision. As a player, I didn't feel a need to put on my policeman's hat and drop my gloves. As a referee -- and, by the way, the home team fans from time immemorial have always yelled for penalties whenever a home player gets checked --I applied my judgement of the hit's legality within the rulebook as well as the unwritten Frank Udvari Rule: if the play would tick you off as a player if it happened to a teammate, it's probably a penalty.
Too many players today often feel like they have a dual entitlement: They are entitled to bodycheck anyone, whether it's for the puck or otherwise. They also feel they are entitled NOT to get bodychecked by anyone else, even if they have puck and their head down. Heaven forbid they get checked, they immediately want to fight or run at an opponent (often with the intent of targeting the head or charging).
When I played, there was a "hit-and-get-hit" understanding that really had nothing to do with fighting. We all learned how to receive checks and protect ourselves as best as possible. We didn't take a clean check personally. However, we also understood that if our style was to be an aggressive hitter, it was going to be a two-way street.
There a lot of factors that have fed into today's entitlement culture. Some are directly hockey-related, and some are societal.
Coaches holler at their players to "finish their check" even if the puck is gone. They want penalties and suspensions every time one of their guys receives a borderline hit, but they take no responsibility for failing to coach their players on how to walk that fine line.
Leagues from the NHL on down don't follow their own disciplinary protocols. Some players who are repeat offenders get cut slack over and over again, so they feel like they are above the law as long as there is no injury on the play (and, even if there is, it wasn't deliberate so leniency is in order).
And now we come to hockey parents: there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones are still plentiful and deserve praise. Sadly, the bad ones are becoming increasingly prevalent and evermore insufferable. "Hockey parent" often has a negative connotation these days, and that's disheartening.
Bad hockey parents are the folks who teach their kids that they have a birthright to receive all the ice time they want, and always on the top line. The ones who tell their kids that knowledgeable and experienced coaches who have forgotten more hockey than they'll ever know are idiots who are the cause of their every mistake on the ice. The ones who teach disrespect to officials. The ones who tell their kids they got wronged any time they get penalized or disciplined. The ones who fight their kids' battles for them even into adulthood.
You know when things started to go downhill? Once upon a time, dressing rooms were off-limits to parents. It was the domain of the team. Once parents started becoming more and more involved in the functioning of teams, players became less and less coachable.
It is no coincidence that the patriarchs of the most-respected hockey families -- men like Gordie Howe and Bill Dineen and Bob Johnson -- had sons who went on to become top-grade, stand-up classy people as well as very good players.
In a future blog, I will discuss the role of teamwork and leadership both from officiating and playing standpoints. I believe all teams -- officiating and playing -- need people who understand how to be leaders. Furthermore, it is NOT necessarily the stars who make the best leaders.
I believe that you learn much more from watching the game intently than you ever will from just looking at a stat sheet. There are players who know how to win and how to lead, and others who don't (even if they sport a "C" or an "A" on their sweater).
Mind you, I'm not saying the players don't care -- they do. But caring and leading do not automatically go hand-in-hand. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone knows how to win. Everyone talks about dealing with adversity, but only a small number have the character to turn adversity into a positive in the long-term. Therein lies the difference.
As for the "advanced stats revolution" in hockey, I admit I am still proudly old-school in my beliefs. Until the end result of a hockey game -- right up to the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals -- is measured by puck possession time rather than which team actually converts more scoring chances and lets fewer pucks into their own net, the so-called revolution will always be of secondary importance.
This old dinosaur would rather see a good mix of players on his team; each with specific roles to play. You still need big, strong defensemen who sacrifice their bodies to block shots and clear the porch around the net. You still need some muscle up front to dig in the corners and create room for the skill guys to do their thing.
You know what you call a team that is nearly entirely filled with finesse-oriented forwards and five smooth-skating puck-moving defensemen who "drive puck possession"? A losing team. Like it or not, needing different types of players for different roles is one of the elements of successful hockey that will never change.
One thing that all championship-winning teams have in common is a mixture of skill and grit with strong leadership in the dressing room as well as behind the bench. That's the hockey I know and love.
Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart is the chairman of the officiating and league discipline committee for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.