Zack Kassian was selected 13th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2009 draft. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Now that Quebec League boss Gilles Courteau has suspended Rouyn-Noranda Huskies center Patrice Cormier for the rest of this season and the playoffs, we’ll never have to worry about egregious violence in hockey again.
(I’ll pause so you can quit laughing and change your dampened undershorts before continuing.)
No, any person remotely associated with the sport has to know that, even with the QMJHL’s most recent announcement of supplemental discipline, there will be more Cormiers, more Mikael Tams, more Zack Kassians, Matt Kennedys, Michael Liambases and Steve Moores to come.
Some of those future assaulters and assaultees can’t and won’t be saved by placing more demands on players’ collective sense of personal responsibility. But each and every time the hockey world punishes a player based on a subjective ruling and not clear-cut, no-excuse guidelines, it ensures and encourages other reckless on-ice acts and endangers additional generations of stars and amateurs alike.
If hockey’s supplemental discipline program were a person, it would be Sybil with a dozen different Bronson complexes; or Juliette Lewis' Mallory Knox character from Natural Born Killers, firing off wildly in all kinds of directions, never certain herself who will get the next batch of buckshot square in the face – or why they deserved it to begin with.
(But perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps we should extend the game’s supplemental discipline philosophy to minor penalties and start allowing a player’s past history and character to affect every two-minute trip to the box they’re assessed. That way, some goons could get 147 minutes for simple interference, while superstars with blank rap sheets could get a 1.105-second penalty for a two-handed cross-check to the face. Guessing-game fun for the whole family!)
It’s enough of a travesty when such an approach is allowed to fester among professional players. But when it takes root at the amateur level, we’re talking about a scandal that should be on the front page of every newspaper and website in every junior hockey town in Canada.
And it demonstrates that, for too long, the junior game has been run by a group of individuals who really have no long-term stake in the well-being of their players.
That, more than anything else, is what has to change.
“After having a son play in this league for five years, what I’ve learned mostly is the inequity in the control the teams have over these young men,” said Brian Kennedy, father of the Matt Kennedy, who was concussed by Kassian – the fifth concussion of his junior career – earlier this month during a game between Barrie and Windsor of the Ontario League.
“I think there should be a code of conduct created that has some parental input – that’s what I’d like to see. Coaches and management just have too much power. For the stars, it’s different; for the Drew Doughtys of the world, it’s not an issue, but for everybody else, it certainly is.”
Indeed, when junior players – especially the fringe players who won’t get anywhere near the NHL – are still pulling in some paltry amount of money and can be replaced in an eye’s blink, why would owners look twice at a low-level worker bee who falls by the wayside?
All the more reason to give parents of junior players a much greater say in the operations of the leagues they toil for.
“I definitely think there should be some voice of the players, in terms of contract signings and commitments,” Brian Kennedy said. “The $50-a-week hasn’t changed in 20 years. Players have huge training costs in the summer and can’t get jobs. So a voice that brings some common sense, especially for the fringe player, is what’s needed.
“I’m not a big fan of unions…but some association of a few player agents and a few parents would serve the players far better than they’re being served now.”
Perhaps the worst part of the elder Kennedy’s experience has been the pronounced double standard that exists for players of varying talents.
“My son was a fringe player to start, then was fortunate to grow into a different role and boy how the world changes when that happens,” said Kennedy, who said the 20-game suspension Canadian League president David Branch gave to Kassian last week was “unconscionable.”
“David Branch talks a good game, but two years ago when my son got hurt, the perpetrator got a five-game suspension and acted up again as soon as he was back; but my son was a fringe player at the time and it happened on a Friday night in Sarnia, so nobody cared.”
Kennedy agrees with the notion of black-and-white rules and repercussions for those players who cross the line.
“It’s very simple – your first severe hit, you’re suspended 15 games,” he said. “Your second hit, you’re out of the league, and your (financial) education package goes to the injured player. But nobody will do it, and two games, or five games, just doesn’t matter.”
That said, he isn’t optimistic the hockey establishment will be the driving force behind change.
“You’ve got dinosaurs in positions of power,” Kennedy said. “The gatekeepers are, for the most part, uneducated ex-hockey players, not professionally taught managers, and they’re running the sport as an old boys’ school. That gets a little tiring after a while.”
Would he be pleased to see the law and politicians intervene and force hockey to modernize its approach?
“As with any self-policing organizations, the government likes to allow them to continue to do that until it’s apparent that they can’t,” Kennedy said. “We’re at that point.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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