Imagine you’re at work or school. You’re about to give a presentation and someone calls you fat, or ugly, or stupid. Or, worse yet, hurls a racial slur your way. Would you feel comfortable continuing? Greg Walsh wouldn’t.
Walsh is a house league coach in Peterborough, Ont. He leads (or, rather, led) the midget NAPA Auto Parts team in the local loop. During a game Nov. 15 against the Austin Trophies-sponsored team, one of his players was the victim of racial abuse. The player is of African descent and after an on-ice altercation landed him and an opponent in the penalty box the “N-word” was heard being used by the Austin boy.
The offender’s coach benched his player for the remainder of the period (and a letter of apology was later sent to Walsh’s player), but when no apology was immediately offered and the player was back on the ice for the third stanza, Walsh and the NAPA players left the ice and forfeited the game in support of their teammate.
The Peterborough Minor Hockey Association later suspended the Austin coaches and the player for three games. But Hockey Canada has a rule on “refusing to start play,” which Walsh was subject to. The coach was automatically suspended pending an Ontario Minor Hockey Association hearing. Walsh’s hearing happened last Saturday and on Thursday the OMHA announced Walsh was banned from the bench for the rest of the season.
Richard Ropchan is the OMHA’s executive director. When contacted by phone he sounded like a man under siege with little real recourse. Not surprisingly, the OMHA had received outcries of support in favor of Walsh, even from the Peterborough Minor Hockey Association, but had little choice in the matter; the OMHA is beholden to the rules and regulations set forth by Hockey Canada.
Walsh knew the ramifications of pulling his team off the ice, but he did it regardless. He knew there were other avenues to be taken, but right then and there he thought of his player.
“We certainly don’t condone racism at all; we’re very strongly against that,” Ropchan said. “But what we were dealing with here was the Hockey Canada regulation. We have to be consistent. The OMHA’s job as a governing body is to enforce the regulations and playing rules in a consistent manner without exception, unless Hockey Canada tells us otherwise.”
And that is what gets my back up.
Hockey Canada obviously has a huge job to do. There are 10 provinces, three territories and hundreds of local associations to govern; everything from house leagues to major junior to oversee. It’s not easy and I’m not here to say it is. But discretion is for those with the power to wield it. And I don’t understand why it couldn’t have been used in this case.
The rule Walsh violated is there to ensure coaches don’t pull teams off the ice over a disputed call or a bad goal. But when it comes to a coach standing up for his player, trying to teach his boys the difference between right and wrong, isn’t that exactly what the spirit of the game is all about?
I talked to Todd Jackson, Hockey Canada’s senior manager, insurance and membership services. When asked if there was an exception to be made in a case such as this, he said there are steps to follow, which happen at the OMHA level, and decisions can be appealed, which Walsh understands.
“I think Hockey Canada has to respect those steps and certainly will do that,” Jackson said. “And if he decides to move forward with an appeal, then that appeal will be looked at.
“It’s very important from our standpoint that we respect the boundaries, we respect the fact that our governing bodies below us that do this job on a daily basis, they take our regulations, they take our rules and they apply them. And certainly we have to respect their (decisions).”
Jackson talked of respect and I respect Hockey Canada’s position – if you make exceptions then everyone will want an exception to be made and you’ll get bogged down in appeals. Fine. But this one is a no-brainer.
Coaches in this country are the molders of our young men and women. Everyone wants to win, but it’s more important that Canadian kids learn life lessons from the people guiding them. And this is house league we’re talking about, not the Memorial Cup. Walsh’s kids are 16-year-olds playing the game for fun; they’re not looking at hockey careers in their futures.
The PMHA, the OMHA and Hockey Canada need people like Walsh, as does every sport across the country. And when one of them does the right thing, he shouldn’t be punished, he should be lauded.
Here’s hoping Walsh will be back behind the bench next season (or better yet, this season), making decisions for his players they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. But if he feels slighted, if he feels unappreciated and decides against a return, I wouldn’t blame him one bit.
Let’s just hope that isn’t the case.
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