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Hockey culture lingers in the past

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Sometimes I think of the hockey establishment/culture and society at large as two neighboring tectonic plates, squeezing up against each other from time to time and causing the game’s ground to quake when they do.

A couple tremors could be felt this week – most recently in the form of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into a Manitoba Junior A hockey team’s hazing activities. The Manitoba Junior League moved swiftly to address the incident, fining the team $5,000 and suspending coaches and players for as many as five games.

You can argue whether the punishments were sufficient or directed toward the right people, but nobody – at least, nobody who wanted to maintain their status as an adult – would suggest there’s a place in hockey for 15-year-old players to be hazed and profoundly humiliated. That wouldn’t have been the case a decade or more ago, when it would’ve been chalked up to “boys being boys” (a phrase almost as empty and stupid as the all-time champ, “it is what it is”) if it got discussed at all.

But you don’t see or hear any of that testosterone-overdose nonsense in major junior hockey anymore. The last time you did was in late 2005, when then-Windsor Spitfires forward (and current Winnipeg Jets prospect) Akim Aliu refused to be subjected to a hazing incident that involved being stripped naked along with other rookies and all of them being crammed into a tiny bus washroom for hours on a road trip.

The reaction inside the room to Aliu’s brave stance was typical hockey hyper-aggressive culture – Spitfires veteran Steve Downie attacked Aliu during practice with a disgusting blindside crosscheck to the face that knocked out some of his teeth – but the repercussions were instant and severe. Ontario League president David Branch dropped the disciplinary hammer on the organization with a $35,000 fine; Spitfires coach-GM Moe Mantha Jr. was suspended one year as a GM, 40 games as a coach, and shortly thereafter was fired by the organization; and both Downie (who was ordered to undergo anger management counselling) and Aliu were traded to separate teams.

So really, when some kids in Manitoba recently decided it was OK to haze, it represented a years-later aftershock of the old hockey world rubbing up against the reality of the real world. Most, if not all hockey leagues now have strict rules against hazing. But until old-school machismo completely dies off among those in positions of power, we’ll likely see it again every so often – and each time it does, it will be seen as even more an anachronism, destined to be viewed quizzically by each future generation.

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Same goes for the visors-in-hockey “debate,” another example of my tectonic-plates-pushing-together theory that arose again this week when Flyers captain Chris Pronger had his eyesight jeopardized by an errant stick and a lack of appropriate protection.

Sure, there still are those who attempt to wave the libertarian flag and suggest the choice to wear visors should be left to players. But in making that case, those folks choose to ignore the way the entire world – and just as importantly, the entire hockey world outside the NHL – has accepted their use as a necessary tool by which to protect people in whom we make massive financial and emotional investments. I’d argue that even those who talk about “grandfathering” in mandatory visors are behind the times. When the American League implemented visors for all players in 2006-07, there was no grandfather clause. As it should be, it was simply demanded.

Listen, there’s nobody stopping you from digging in your heels and lamenting the passing of a time where people took greater risks with their physical and mental well-being. But doing so isn’t going to reverse the never-ending trend toward mitigating that risk and seeing sport through a more humanistic lens.

It comes down to the tectonic plate of society being stronger than hockey’s. And if you disagree, see who’s left standing next time the ground rumbles.

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. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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