USA Hockey (USAH) today dispelled any doubt it is hell bent on changing the culture of the game -- at least the culture that can lead to language and conduct that fosters racial, homophobic or other offensive language. A partner in NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone (TM) initiative, USAH took a bold step forward with today's announcement.
The press release explained the presidential directive that changed the penalty for racial/derogatory slurs, of any kind, that fall under Rule 601e3 from a game misconduct to a match penalty.
The press release quotes Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey: “We continue to get reports of disturbing incidents of racial and other derogatory slurs, behavior which is reprehensible and has absolutely no place in our game, especially around our children. For reasons I cannot explain or understand, the current penalty in place does not seem to be enough of a deterrent to stop this type of conduct."
USAH also issued a letter from Smith to its general membership.
While not out of the ordinary for USAH to place special emphasis on certain infractions or behaviors during the off-season, it is very rare to address a situation mid-season, especially by changing the penalty that is to be applied to an infraction. The wording for 601e3 is:
601(e) A game misconduct penalty shall be assessed to any player or team official who is guilty of the following actions:
(3) Uses language that is offensive, hateful or discriminatory in nature anywhere in the rink before, during or after the game.
The biggest difference between a Game Misconduct and Match Penalty is a Match requires a hearing to be held by the governing body within 30 days of the incident, during which time the player is suspended from all USAH activity. This means he/she cannot practice, play or take part in off-ice activities for any USAH-registered team he/she is rostered.
While the increased hearing mandate could result in an enormous workload increase for volunteer and paid officials who are already trying to manage major situations, one longtime executive feels it will be more than worth it. Glenn Hefferan, president of the Atlantic Amateur Hockey Association (AAHA), which is one USA Hockey's 12 governing districts, and a longtime USAH board member, knew something of this nature was on its way but was not aware of how or when it was coming down. Nonetheless, he is entirely supportive of the directive.
"If it burdens us administratively, then we have more work to do with this issue," said Hefferan. "There is no room for this in our game. The NHL and USA Hockey have made it their business to make the game attractive to everyone. We all play the game for fun and we should be able to offer that environment."
Hefferan indicated his District had 38 penalties called under 601c3 last year, which would mean 38 additional hearings to be held. Each hearing requires the immediate governing body to set a date and time during which the designated disciplinarian can be available to adjudicate the matter. Coaches, players, officials and anyone else within earshot can be brought into a hearing. While technology has allowed these to be done by phone, some are still done face-to-face.
Furthermore, Smith's letter instructs officials to make a game report any time this language is alleged to have happened but unheard by the officiating crew. At which time the Affiliate is further instructed to review the incident. This touches too close to a guilty-until-proven-innocent situation for some, but the review of these non-penalty situations is meant to bring attention to every incident or allegation.
Hefferan, who grew up playing hockey in Jersey City, N.J., and who has been involved in the game ever since at the affiliate and league levels, has noticed the change in behavior over the years. "I think this type of language has always been there," he said. "I think the digital age allowed kids to see (more examples of this language) and this behavior, and it has become more a part of culture. There was a show on MTV a few years ago that involved "pantsing" people (the act of coming up behind an unsuspecting person and pulling down their pants in public). We had some teams and players that started doing that and we had to address it. This is not different."
By drumming this out of the culture of the game Hefferan feels players will be a little better suited for the real world when they enter. "There are myriad ways to hurt people with language," said Hefferan. "If you don't mind sitting out for great periods of time because you can't control what you say then this won't be a problem. If you learn this lesson at age 14, for example, it's much better than learning when you enter the workforce."
Another issue brought about by a mid-season change is that of officiating education. Because officials are the ones who have to hear this language to make the call, things like this are usually addressed accordingly during preseason officiating seminars. This causes slight concern for longtime supervisor of officials Gene Binda, who serves as referee-in-chief for multiple leagues including the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) and the Eastern Hockey League (EHL).
"I'm 100 percent behind the rule because we don't need this BS in our game," said Binda. "I don't really like the idea of a whipsaw in the middle of the season, when all our educational opportunities are over. If a referee makes this call there will now be an investigation and a hearing, and frankly I'm not sure that level of (scrutiny) will result in these penalties being called more frequently."
Binda feels the massive shortage of officials will also affect this point of emphasis. "For years we've been seeing the shortage of officials getting worse and worse. Now we're at the breaking point. The most experienced officials are working college and professional games."
Binda went on to explain that it takes a fairly seasoned official to make this call, knowing it will lead to a hearing in which the player's teammates and coaching staff may be in a position to testify against him or her. "An experienced official won't call this any differently. An inexperienced official may not be ready to interject himself or herself into a game. With such a high level of scrutiny and (effect on the player), I just don't see it getting called more because you have to be 1000 percent sure," said Binda.
To be clear, Binda is not talking about the standard language that anybody can categorize as racial slur or homophobic. It's the fringe slang and other banter of which an official may not even know the meaning.
On the coaching and parent front, Jim MacFarlane of Moorhead, Minn., is glad to see something more is being done. MacFarlane is a longtime high school coach and a Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee. More importantly he is the father of three children, the youngest of whom is African-American.
Last year his daughter experienced a nasty racial slur in a 14U game against a well-known opponent. Well-known enough that his daughter knew almost all the girls on the other team. "I think it really shook her," said MacFarlane. "Not just that she had to experience that, but because she felt like she knew the girls on the other team pretty well. To that point she never had anybody in her face yelling a racial slur at her and telling her she shouldn't be playing hockey. She wasn't ready for it in that kind of malicious manner."
MacFarlane's experience echos what Binda suspects may happen. There was a young referee who didn't commit very hard to having heard what she heard. "I wasn't out to get the (player) who said it or anything like that," said MacFarlane. "I just wanted to see it addressed a little better. I didn't realize at that point that it was only a one game suspension." To him, the whole post-slur process seemed ragged and lacking in fortitude.
"If that was a three-day tournament and a player is penalized for a racial slur, they might be playing by the next day," said MacFarlane. "They could be playing the same team again in 24 or 48 hours. I think there needs to be a little more weight behind it."
Ridding the sport of that language would also be MacFarlane's goal. "If we're going to grow the game, it can't be done with the perception that people are going to be excluded or mistreated because of their skin color or sexual preference. I applaud this just like I would applaud tougher penalties for checking from behind or kicking or any other (injury potential) penalty."
While suspensions may increase in time and duration, MacFarlane says the effects of the words linger on. "Two weeks later my daughter was still battling this issue. She was showing me pictures of that team winning the state title, and the girl who made the slur was holding the trophy. I think it bothered her a lot."
Time will tell how this plays out and the effect it will have on the culture, but it cannot be successfully argued that USA Hockey is taking a passive role in these incidents. Jim Smith made sure of that today.
Jeff Nygaard is the editor of The Junior Hockey Podcast. He covers Junior and college-bound hockey as a traditional “beat,” in addition to breaking news stories during the course of the year
He has a vast amount of experience on the business and organizational side of the sport as a former owner-operator of two Junior organizations two youth clubs and having served as executive director or commissioner of the Eastern Hockey League and the United States Premier Hockey League.
A Fergus Falls, Minn., native, Nygaard grew up playing for the Fergus Falls Youth Hockey Association, Fergus Falls High School, Fergus Falls Community College and North Dakota State University programs. He can be reached at email@example.com for questions, story ideas and anonymous tips.