An exciting minor hockey playoff game Sunday ended on a sour note at the Terwillegar Recreation Centre in southwest Edmonton, resulting in several suspensions and condemnations.
It happened after a U18 Tier 1 playoff game between the South East Edmonton Recreation Association — team SE701 — and Stony Plain Minor Hockey Predators — team SN701.
The game went to an overtime shootout, ending in a 4-3 victory for Stony Plain.
“The game was very competitive. It was a great game. And they ended up in an overtime victory for one of the teams,” said Edmonton Federation Hockey League (EFHL) president John Putters.
“Overall, the game was great — right up till the end.”
Following the big win, the teams began the traditional giving of handshakes — until a player raised his fist and hit another teenager.
After the first punch was thrown, more players from both teams of 15, 16 and 17-year-old boys got involved and a brawl broke out.
There was a pile up near the boards. Referees and a coach could be seen trying to break up the fight.
The brawl was recorded on video that was then posted online.
The EFHL is made up of 33 minor hockey associations across the Edmonton region, under the direction of Hockey Alberta and Hockey Canada.
The league said several players decided to act in a “completely unsportsmanlike manner” leading to the video shared and viewed on social media.
“At the end of every game, you shake your opponent’s hand — win or lose,” Putters said.
“To have that incident happen in a handshake was extremely disappointing. And the fact that it ended up on social media was even more disappointing.”
Putters said he wished the incident had been dealt with locally, not posted online for thousands to see.
“It gives the league and hockey a really bad reputation and people use that to justify their belief that hockey is a violent sport and it really isn’t,” he said.
“It’s about competitiveness and sportsmanship and respect and all the things that we try to teach kids when they come into the hockey program.”
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The EFHL issued a statement Tuesday, saying it was made aware of the issues with the playoff game early Monday morning and opened an immediate investigation into the actions of the players of both teams.
The organization said the behaviour would not be tolerated in the league. It also stated it worked with Hockey Alberta to review the game and ensure all players who participated in the situation were sanctioned appropriately.
The EFHL said three match penalties, nine fighting majors, one instigator and 15 game misconduct penalties were handed out to players of both teams.
EFHL said eight players were suspended, some indefinitely. Both head coaches of the teams were also suspended due to multiple fighting majors and match penalties post game.
Putters said it means the season is done for some of those young boys.
“Some of them are graduating out of our league because it’s U18. In my opinion, that’s not a really good way to end your minor hockey career.
“These kids have been playing minor hockey for many years together and, you know, it’s kind of ending it on a sour note in my mind.”
Putters said regardless of the level of play, the sport is an emotional one and people get wrapped up in it.
“I really do try to remind people: one of the biggest challenges in playing this game, because it’s a physical game, is keeping track of your emotions. And the fact that they couldn’t do that is, you know, unfortunate.”
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Alexis Peters, a registered nurse and sociology professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, has been studying hockey culture for more than two decades.
She said the game puts pressure on young men to behave in an aggressive manner that can carry over into other aspects of life.
“I’m probably one of the very few people that says that is not a hockey player out there — that is a young man.
“It’s somebody’s son, it’s somebody’s brother, it’s somebody’s boyfriend. And if this is how they’re behaving and rewarded at this age, how on earth are they going to be healthy adults?”
She said many young hockey players are told to be tough, suck it up, play through the pain and do whatever it takes to stay on the team.
“These young men have been reward from coaches, parents and don’t get me started on the fans — every time they engage in this type of behaviour, watch the fans,” she said of the cheering and excitement that fights stir from the crowd.
“They are rewarded for engaging in all types of violent behaviour.”
Peters said her research has shown junior hockey players may be at a higher risk of perpetrating acts of violence, including sexual assault, than their nonathlete counterparts.
“Given the attitudes they had learned through hockey compared to a control group, they were possibly at higher risk for engaging in all forms of violence,” she said.
Putters said a brawl can happen in any sport.
“I think because hockey is such a big sport in our society, there’s more emphasis on the violence that is perceived that is affecting hockey,” he said.
“I think if you asked, you know, there’s thousands of registrants in minor hockey — the vast, vast majority would say it was a wonderful experience.”
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Putters said the game has evolved over the decades: gone are the Slap Shot days when violent play was what filled the stands. Instead, in the modern era of players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, what’s rewarded is talent, athleticism and finesse.
“I mean, you watch the (Edmonton) Oilers, that’s what’s entertaining about it, is the speed and pace of the game.”
While the reason for the brawl in Edmonton on Sunday is just one incident and does not reflect the experience the vast majority of players have, Peters said the fight speaks to a larger issue.
“They still they need to make some serious changes at the cultural level,” she said.
“Given the climate right now of what’s going on with Hockey Canada, I think the league had no other choice. They had to send a hard message.”
Hockey Canada, the national governing body for hockey in this country, has been mired in scandal over its handling of sexual assault allegations.
The organization revealed it maintained a reserve fund, fueled by membership fees, that was used in part to settle sexual misconduct cases.
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Peters said the subculture and values in hockey is similar to that of law enforcement, military and fraternities.
“A lot of those values or attributes that those men learn — to be strong, to be independent — those in and of themselves are not bad qualities. It’s only when it’s taken to the extreme does it become a toxic thing on their health,” she said.
Putters also stressed controlling your emotions is one of the hardest aspects of the game, be it as a coach or a player.
“I get that it’s an emotional game, no question about that. But that’s part of the learning experience and playing hockey,” he said.
“I’ve coached for 25 years. I tell every new coach: the biggest issue you’re ever going to have to deal with is your own emotions. Because if you can’t control them on the bench and control your players — because of course, the players feed off the coach — you probably shouldn’t be a coach.”
The league said it has seen more discipline issues this season and Putters hopes this will be a lesson for everyone to put the game and sportsmanship into perspective.
Putters said he reminds people — the game is for the kids.
“It’s to learn about respect for coaches, officials, referees and have fun.
“We shouldn’t have issues where people are fighting on the ice.”
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Leaders in the hockey community said they’re dismayed by the violence and hope this will be a wake-up a call.
“This was a travesty to the game of hockey,” said Trevor Elliott, the president of South East Edmonton Recreation Association (SEERA).
Elliott said the organization does not condone the the type of disturbing behavior displayed by some of its players.
“This behavior does not reflect the safe and welcoming environment that SEERA Hockey and all other surrounding associations strive to provide players and parents.
“There is no place for this in hockey.”
In his statement issued Wednesday night, Elliott thanked the on-ice officials and facility staff at the rec centre for their work to de-escalating the event.
“This was an unforgiving and embarrassing display of poor sportsmanship by players of our hockey organization, and for that we apologize, and will strive to make sure events such as this never happen again.”
The Edmonton Police Service said the situation wasn’t reported and officers are not investigating.