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Former top National Hockey League ref says fighting is on the way out

LONDON, Ont. - Former NHL referee-in-chief Bryan Lewis says fighting in hockey is on the way out.

Lewis was part of a Violence in Hockey Symposium staged Tuesday by the Middlesex-London Health Unit, a gathering of hockey officials, coaches, media members and a former professional player at the London Convention Centre.

"I believe the screw is finally being turned," Lewis said in an interview.

"I think it's slowly being removed from the game."

The symposium, attended by 98 coaches, trainers and administrators, sought recommendations leading to a decrease in injuries resulting from gratuitous violence on the ice.

Panellist Bernie Pascall, a veteran sportscaster who did play-by-play for the Vancouver Canucks along with 12 world hockey championships and 12 Memorial Cups, conducted a far-reaching report on violence for the British Columbia government in 2000. Among his findings was evidence of parental and crowd influence, inconsistent officiating, and beneath it all, a 'culture' in hockey that celebrates aggressive behaviour as a manly pursuit.

Has he seen changes since his report and recommendations?

"A little, not much," Pascall said. "Young players aren't born to be violent, they're shown to be violent".

Pascall said hundreds of interviews with young hockey players led to frank commentary from the kids. Some dreaded the ride home with their fathers and the vocal criticism en route.

"There are those who embarrass the kids, steal their fun," Pascall said.

One of the B.C. initiatives designed to control parental outbursts at games is a "Parent Contract" which enables arena management to oust overly aggressive parents from games.

Dan Rose, a 33-year coaching veteran at all levels up to Junior B, felt the rules changes were beginning to tighten down instances of fighting.

"There's been a decline," the former St. Thomas Stars coach said, "because players have to show more discipline. You can't be facing power plays too much because they're so good nowadays. You can't just be a fighter, you have to play or I can't afford to put you on the ice."

Lewis said his two fears as a parent were a head check to his son or a check from behind.

He worked more than one thousand NHL games between 1970 and 1986 before becoming supervisor of officials and then director of officiating in 1989. He retired from the NHL in 2001 and currently is a councillor in the town of Halton Hills and director of officiating for the East Coast Hockey League.

He drew a laugh with a suggestion to end fights.

"If the game is scheduled to start at 7:30, the two fighters should come out at 7:15 and fight at centre ice, with the survivor getting to play," he said. "As it is, they get rewarded for fighting when they get sent off late in a 7-2 game. They get the hot water (showers) first while everyone else has to suffer through to the end."

The topic of hits to the head was prominent at the symposium. Ken Bocking, chief of staff at St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital, spoke of a son who sustained two concussions via elbows to the head that ended his career. Bocking showed a graphic film clip of a monkey's brain upon impact.

The Ontario Hockey Association got involved but the NHL, Bocking said, "took it under consideration".

"It's immoral to hit another player with a head-check," Bocking said. "I can't fathom how we, as a society, put up with it. The dinosaurs are in charge but they won't always be."

Throughout the symposium, the NHL was fingered as the type of play most in the minors tend to emulate. Yet what one panellist termed "flagrant, wanton acts" went on all the time with scant punishment.

Lack of respect for opponents and officials had led to another problem besetting hockey in Canada, said George Black, president of Sports Officials Canada.

"Retaining officials is a critical issue," he said."Retention rates are startlingly low. It's an issue at all levels of hockey."

Three media members expressed frustration over being unable to express their views on hockey violence widely.

"Nobody wants to talk about problems in the game," said Bruce Dowbiggen of the Calgary Herald.

Organizers will sift through all the views to come up with recommendations. Most agreed with Pascall and Lewis - people are listening and things are changing. Some hope an upcoming NHL general managers' meeting will hear.

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