Lays blame squarely at feet
of minor hockey system
In yesterdays post, I brought you Howie Meekers opinions on fighting in the game of hockey.
In a nutshell, Howie says it should be banned from all levels of the sport, from minor leagues to the NHL. Responsibility for doing this rests with municipal leaders, arena management, minor hockey organizations, and for pro hockey the NHL itself. But he thinks change wont happen anytime soon, because fighting has become a crutch to make up for the lack of genuine skills among the majority of players.
So the players fight instead, Howie said.
And he says the blame for this skills deficit rests squarely with Canadas minor hockey system.
It goes right back to the minor leagues. Theres not enough skilled players in the world to entertain with speed, skill, finesse, timing and brains. Because nowhere in this country are we teaching the skills how to skate, how to handle a puck, how to back up and turn, how to give and take a pass, and how to think. Theres no minor hockey organization in this country teaching skills. They cant do any of these things, and were trying to teach them how to play the game of hockey.
If we were teaching skills in the formative years, then no one would have to fight. Because the game is good enough, when played with speed and skill and finesse. Its a great game! You dont need fighting in it.
Howie says Canada could learn a thing or two from the European minor hockey system.
In the main, its Europeans who are more skilled, by far. They are teaching the fundamentals. Away back when they started 25 years ago they said Hey this is a great game. What do we have to do? Our kids cant skate, cant carry the puck, cant pass... We have to teach them these skills first. Then we can teach them how to play the game.
I asked Howie if Don Cherry, and his rock em, sock em approach to hockey commentary, has contributed to the current situation.
Well, no, the people who are to blame are those who run minor hockey in the communities. The kids grow up in that violent atmosphere.
The solution, Howie said, is to get tough with fighting, through multi-game suspensions for repeat offenders. To make his point, Howie drew on his own experience with minor hockey in St. Johns, many years ago.
We had no problem with fights, he said. No problem at all. When the schools were in charge of hockey, we just said okay, fine, if youre in a fight, well break that up, but if youre in a second one, youre gone for five games. And we had no trouble. On the other hand, when we started a junior hockey league in Newfoundland thats all we had was fighting. Teams from Bonavista, Clarenville our teams were in it too all they did was fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. It was stupid, absolutely stupid. They grew up in that atmosphere, even the good players We finally decided, halfway through the season, to stop the fighting. If you get in a second fight, thats it you dont play anymore. Just stay home. We had to get tough to stop, and we finally did, but it was a pain in the ass to do it.
NHL pro hockey in the 1940s and 50s was also known to be a tough game. Howie laughed when I asked the inevitable question: did he fight too?
I used to be in the odd fight, sure. But in those days, no one was on a hockey team because he was a fighter. You had to earn your spot on that NHL team through your ability to score goals and win games and by playing, not fighting.
Howie was hesitant to talk about his own experience in more detail, for fear of glorifying that behaviour. However, I pressed him for more because I savour these conversations about the golden days of hockey. My jaw drops in awe whenever he drops names like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsey, Hap Day, and the like. So I persisted.
Yeah, sometimes things broke out, he said. Somebody would give me a hit. Id give it to somebody else, and then someone would hit you across the ankles, and then youd miss a goal and youd get frustrated. Someone would look at you cross-eyed and say something to you, and then, bang! Away you went. But there was nothing premeditated. And there were no enforcers. None at all. I never played with anyone in my life, who was there because he (could fight but) couldnt play hockey.
And what about specific players, or incidents?
Detroit and the Canadiens, they were our main rivals, he said. I didnt like Ted Lindsey with Detroit, he didnt like me. And we used to fight on a regular basis. Lindsey was my size we were two little guys going at it, couldnt punch our way out of a wet paper bag. But somewhere halfway through the fight, Id look up and Id end up tangled with Gordie Howe. And hed kick the shit out of me. How many times did he beat me up! And Im not dumb I wouldnt start a fight with Gordie Howe! Murph Chamberlain, he was a mean son of a bitch, a Montreal Canadien. He and I would go at it once in a while. And Grant Warwick with the Rangers, we used to fight. I didnt like him, he didnt like me, and we were both the same size.
Howie added that the animosity of a fight was short-lived and left on the ice when the final whistle blew. They traveled by rail back then, and teams often wound up on the same train.
After the game, one team would go to Buffalo, one would go to Chicago, another would go to New York or Boston, and wed meet in the club car and have a beer together. It wasnt a deep grudge. I was in the NHL for eight years, and the American Hockey League too. No one was on that team because they could fight. They didnt earn their spot on the team because they were good with their fists. There wasnt much of it back then, not compared to now. Now its part of the show. Its stupid, absolutely stupid.
For more opinions on this subject, check out CBC Radio Crosstalk from February 9. The subject was fighting in hockey, Ramona Dearings guest was Carl Lake, and the discussion was lively and intense.