Most players understand that adult hockey leagues are supposed to be about a healthy mix of good-natured competition, fitness, and bonding. Most, however, does not mean all.
For those who forget, a zero tolerance policy adopted more than 20 years ago is clearly spelled out in the USA Hockey rulebook, stating, “This policy requires all players, coaches, officials, team officials and administrators and parents/spectators to maintain a sportsmanlike and educational atmosphere before, during and after all USA Hockey-sanctioned games.”
But sometimes common sense and that well-intentioned USA Hockey reminder just aren’t enough. There are a few players who treat every moment like Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, every opponent like a mortal enemy, and every official like a personal nemesis.
Those are the players who often spoil things for the majority and send adult hockey league directors scrambling for ways to both discipline them and try to prevent their occurrence.
Call it the knucklehead effect.
“We have a few individuals who try to take things way too seriously – they try to start a fight, and they’re guys who just don’t get the sport, really, or the fact that this is men’s league hockey,” says Shawn Peterson, president of the Des Moines (Iowa) Adult Hockey Association. “A lot of times the players just don’t get it. It’s like a switch that’s flipped. You have a conversation off the ice and everything is fine, and then they get on the ice and it’s like war. They don’t get that the purpose is exercise and camaraderie and spend time with teammates.”
Interestingly enough, Jarrod Boman, hockey director at Sherwood Ice Arena in Sherwood, Ore., describes it almost exactly the same way. Both men are in charge of hundreds of adult hockey players.
“It’s always the guys that tell you, ‘I’m just here for fun and exercise, and it’s no big deal,” Boman says. “They get on the ice, and it’s like a switch that flips.”
Both men said the troublemakers do share some characteristics. They tend to be younger. They tend to be middle-of-the-road players—not novices just trying to stay on their feet, but not elite former college players who know how to peel back.
The problem with one bad seed on a team is that the infection spreads. It doesn’t necessarily make other players on the team behave badly, but if players aren’t having fun because of one rotten teammate, it can decrease their likelihood of staying in the league.
“When you have teams where there are problems, there are a handful of guys who just don’t want to come back,” Peterson says. “So if you lose one guy, you really lose five or six in the league.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Boman has implemented stricter punishment for body checking in leagues he runs this year as a result of previous problems with overly aggressive play. Three major infractions in a season means a player gets kicked out of the league.
“That seemed to be the biggest culprit with guys going too far. It was more of the body checking than the fighting,” Boman says. “The new rules seem to help.”
In terms of prevention, Peterson stresses preseason education and good discussions with team captains to ensure that teams are well represented and players fit the level for the league.
“Before the season, we definitely point to the zero-tolerance policy,” he says. “We’re communicating with players and captains. We do what we can to try to send out a good sportsmanship message.”
If a situation escalates into potential suspensions—or even permanent league expulsion—communication remains key with captains, Peterson says. That said, sometimes even that isn’t enough.
“One of the guys we’re having a problem with now, his dad is the captain. So he doesn’t want to kick him off the team,” Peterson says. “In another league, we have a guy who is pretty close to getting a year suspension, if not an expulsion. And he’s lifelong friends with the captain of his team. So when there are a few guys who are allowed to stay around longer than they should, those are the ones we reach the board level on and have to ask, ‘Is this a liability risk?’”
Boman says some of the problems arise from a lack of clarity on officiating rules, and he’s found that posting instructional videos on the league Facebook page helps to that end.
“I’m very referee- and rules-oriented, and I’ve had a lot of positive impact with that,” Boman says. “If you want to control your league better, in my opinion, officiating is number one.”
Not everyone gets the message, however, even after repeated discipline. Those players tend to leave on their own accord or are expelled permanently. But there are some silver linings: even former knuckleheads can be reformed.
“We have one player that we were ready to expel, and he’s been quiet for a while now,” Peterson says. “I think he’s learned his lesson.”