Maybe you shouldn’t have stayed so late at that dinner party. There is nowhere to get coffee.
When I coached my son’s house league team, the game times were 7:30 a.m. Saturday, and the sporadic practice time was 6:30 a.m. Sunday. One Sunday it was only my son and another boy, a new Canadian with limited skills. We worked on skating and shooting. I called out the play in Foster Hewitt tones, my voice echoing in the Leaside arena. When we left, it was still dark.
Still, the pleasures of a house league are many. There isn’t much at stake, the kids have fun and parents tend to be relaxed. I coached with my friend Grant, whose son also played on the team. Our group included some talented kids, a few new Canadians who were just learning how to play, and kids in the middle.
“It’s the second.”
“How many do you think they’ll have?”
We once pulled the goalie at the beginning of a game, though it was unintentional. He wasn’t on the ice when the puck dropped, and I raced to the dressing room to find him lying on the floor, his non-hockey father struggling to figure out how the goalie pads went on.
When my son turned 11 and his skills had outstripped House League, it was time to find a new place to play. We gravitated to the Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League (TNCHL) because a friend’s son had gone there and liked it.
The TNCHL was started in 2009 by a group of parents in the Palmerston school district in downtown Toronto. Bill Robertson, a TV producer and teacher at Humber College, headed the effort and is president of the league.
Part of the impetus for the TNCHL had to do with the hope of fewer injuries. “Though non-contact isn’t really an accurate term,” Robertson says. “There’s always contact in hockey. But there’s no bodychecking.”
They also wanted a manageable schedule that didn’t have one parent driving back and forth across the city through homicidal traffic four or five times a week. There are never more than three games/practices in a week, often only two, and most of the rinks are in the city core. In four years it has grown from three to 13 teams. The kids come from Select, A, AA and, in a few cases, AAA.
Between 20 and 25 per cent of the players have come to the TNCHL due to injury, usually a concussion. Some of the kids signed up because they don’t like hitting or being hit. Some are small for their age or don’t have the temperament for physical play.
There are skilled kids who want to play unencumbered by the threat of being flattened. There are players who were led here by their parents and some who found the league on their own. And there are kids who’d rather be back in the GTHL but whose parents want the relative gentility of the TNCHL.
It is a curious coalition of players, and an emerging philosophical construct. Last year, the Select level (the lowest level other than house league) in the GTA initiated a no-bodychecking rule. “I think we were definitely a factor in Select going to no contact,” Robertson says. After Select went non-contact, the growth of the TNCHL stalled, after having almost doubled each of its first three years.
The recent emergence of non-contact hockey has set up two solitudes that compete for players, for ice and for the hearts and minds of players and parents.
When you eliminate bodychecking, the game changes fundamentally. Players tend to carry the puck over the blue line as opposed to dumping it in and chasing it and hammering the opposing defenceman into the boards. There are fewer whistles, more end-to-end rushes, less traffic in the neutral zone. It is a more graceful game.
Skilled players have more room to develop those skills without the fear of getting rocked. Speed is prized, size less so. It remains a physical game; players muck in the corners and box one another out with their bodies. They stand one another up on one-on-ones.
But the absence of bodychecking is liberating for the skilled. As a result, the game is faster.
What is lost is less tangible. There is less at stake in the TNCHL, and so less intensity. Hitting adds drama and encourages passing; if you hold onto the puck too long, you will likely pay. So the play can be more selfish.
You can feel it in the stands and see it on the ice. It provides a subtext; there is something to play for — a future. It gives both parents and players hope and can make them irrational. It sometimes corrupts coaches and teams. It produces both excellence and anguish.
Draft day for Minor Midget players can be devastating. The version of themselves they carry in their head (the next Rick Nash, the next Taylor Hall) suddenly confronts the scout’s assessment — drafted in the 15th round to the OHL, an afterthought, their hockey life instantly marginal.
There are parents who have left the GTHL for the TNCHL and find both leagues wanting. The GTHL was all-consuming and too expensive, they say. It lagged on safety issues and it has an unbecoming arrogance.
The ideal league may lie somewhere in between. One possibility would be for the GTHL’s A and AA teams to go to a no-bodychecking format.
The GTHL’s argument is that parents now have a choice, and there is no need to eliminate checking at the A or AA levels. But there is no logical reason to keep it either. The chances of those players making it to the big time are statistically zero.
A few undrafted players end up in the NHL every year (Adam Oates, for example, recently inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame), but the numbers are inconsequential. There isn’t a compelling reason to impose NHL rules and values on boys who will never play there.
Arguably, only AAA players need to learn how to hit and how to take a hit. They are the only ones who should dream, however wildly and expensively, of the NHL. But perhaps the NHL should change its dreams.
The NHL informs the game at every level, the standard by which everything else is measured.
But these haven’t been golden years for the league. The product is diluted and unprofitable. (Thirteen of 30 teams lost money last year.) There are too many marginal teams and too many marginal players.
For semi-skilled players to compete with highly skilled players, the best strategies are obstructionist or physical: dump-and-chase, clutch-and-grab, neutral zone trap, hooking and hitting. None of these make for interesting hockey.
Fighting and devastating bodychecks are an essential part of the NHL’s marketing effort in non-hockey cities. They are prized by unsophisticated fans in expansion markets because they are visceral and easily understood. And they remain a key ingredient on highlight reels, second only to goals. But they slow the game down.
Given that the league is unwilling to get rid of fighting, to suggest taking bodychecking out of the NHL would be heretical.
National Hockey League games still exhibit grace and intensity, and there are moments of jaw-dropping artistry, but there are grinding mid-season games, and suffocating styles of play, and too many semi-skilled players.
The league hasn’t been well-managed as either a business or a sport. It is a compromise of base instincts, poorly conceived expansion, conservatism, passion and cynicism. It isn’t where the minor leagues should be looking for guidance.
On any given night, thousands of parents sit on cold bleachers with their laptops on their knees, or pace with their cellphones, at Iceland or Phil White or Chris Tonks or some other arena. They have fought traffic, participated in fundraisers, paid more for hockey sticks than they spent on their first car.
They watch joyfully or dutifully or with crushing hangovers, or read the paper. They have a nodding acquaintance with a hundred other parents, with skate sharpeners and coaches. Their careers as hockey parents are far longer than most professional hockey careers.
We aren’t all watching the same thing. Somewhere in Markham a father’s heart is breaking as his son’s professional dreams evaporate on a losing AAA team. A Mississauga parent is buoyed by the play, still hopeful his kid will go to the show.
Here in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, watching my son’s Minor Bantam team (12- and 13-year-olds) play, there aren’t the same expectations, though the emotions are the same. Our hearts rise and fall with their play on the ice.
There is a particular joy that comes from watching your child participate. We hope that he will take away a sense of sportsmanship and citizenship and an understanding of the ruthless hierarchies of both sport and life. Ultimately, the goals aren’t that different for AAA parents and non-contact parents, but the paths diverge.
My son’s Wolverines are in third place, playing against the second-place Sharks. They warm up under the dome of the glorious Gardens. The redesigned MLG now houses a Loblaws and Ryerson University’s athletic facilities, including this rink. It is a brilliant facility: bright, innovative and uncharacteristically warm.
A few of the original details of the Gardens have been preserved, bits of exposed brick and girders, reminders of the building’s gritty history. In the Maple Leafs, you can glimpse the decline of the game itself, an arc that descends through lunatic owners, an enviably undiscerning market, rising ticket prices, hundreds of losses, disastrous trades, unfortunate philosophies and mid-season clashes with the Columbus Blue Jackets that look like a Samuel Beckett play.
On the ice, the powerhouse Sharks get a goal at the six-second mark. There is a collective slump among Wolverine parents. This could herald a blowout. The Sharks get another one. There are a few perfunctory cries of “Let’s get it back!” but we fear the worst.
Hugh Thompson, whose son Ethan plays defence for the Wolverines, says his son came to the TNCHL after two concussions playing AA in the GTHL. His daughter, who played hockey on a non-contact girl’s team, also suffered a concussion after a mid-ice collision.
Ethan’s defence partner Ryan Ho is the smallest player in the league, an electric skater who occasionally makes an Orr-like rush up the ice. In this league, his speed has to be matched with speed, it can’t be stopped with brawn.
There are moments of firewagon hockey, glimpses of the intensity that would come with a larger league, with a critical mass.
In the end, the Wolverines storm back for five unanswered goals, surprising everyone. Afterward, we file down to the Loblaws below the rink for celebratory pastries. The original centre-ice red dot of the Gardens has been preserved in aisle 25, between canned meats and international sauces. It isn’t well-marked. Kids suddenly arrive there while shopping with a parent and instinctively stare upward, imagining the crowd.
At some of the TNCHL games, the teams that are playing when I arrive are from the beer league, middle-aged men who play for fun. I watch them while my son and his teammates get changed.
There is no bodychecking here. No one wants to, though there is still a youthful vigour to the game. The passing is a bit ragged, but a few can still carry the puck, still dangle.
It is always a shock when they take off their helmets before skating off. The grey hair matted, the eyes hollowed in the ghastly arena lighting. They are in their 40s and 50s, with a few in their 60s.
When they come out of the change room, dragging their hockey bags, they are pale and paunchy and vulnerable-looking. They still carry their own mythologies within, but this is the terminus.