Dear GTHL – glad you’re eliminating bodychecking 7

To: Scott Oakman, Executive Director; and John Gardner, PresidentGreater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL)

Dear Scott and John:

Hi. Glad to have a couple of minutes of your attention – we know how busy you are. You guys together run the GTHL: the largest and arguably the most influential minor hockey association in Canada – and by extension, the world.

Like so many men and women involved in minor hockey, you invest a huge amount of your time thinking, talking, and dreaming about what’s happening with the kids on the ice. Your intentions are good.


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So, Scott and John – of course you’re concerned about head injuries. You’ve watched what’s happening in the NHL, and you’re aware that this season in the GTHL, too, most teams have lost kids to concussions and whiplash. You’ve noted that the North York Hockey League has banned bodychecking at their Select level. You’ve also seen the increase in enrolment in the Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League, now entering its fourth season, with more and more former GTHL A, AA, and even AAA kids – kids as young as 11 – moving to non-contact hockey after deciding that they’re not interested in getting creamed by a late hit, missing school and other sports, and risking long-term health problems. Or, of course, leaving the GTHL after having these very things happen.

You’ve discussed – behind closed doors – bringing in your own outright ban on bodychecking in the GTHL, maybe just at single-A, maybe at double-AA too. C’mon. We know you have.

Scott, John – listen. Lots of players, parents, coaches, and people who love hockey are with you on this. We at Best Player are with you, too. And to show our support, we’ve put together a list of possible objections to the GTHL’s going non-contact in A and AA – arguments you might hear from the dinosaurs who don’t want anyone changing anything – together with snappy and eloquently reasoned responses to said objections. We’d have no objections of our own to your using these responses without citing us, footnoting us, or mentioning us in any way. Go right ahead and pass this off as your own thinking. Our guess is you’re thinking along these lines anyway.

All that matters is that next year, all those kids playing in your league’s single-A and double-AA divisions won’t have to worry about looking down at the puck, glancing back to pick up a pass, or getting caught in the “kill zone” a few feet out from the boards (all heinous crimes, we know, and naturally punishable by the direst physical consequences – at least for pros in the NHL and for the 11-year-olds-and-up playing in your league).

So here goes. Precambrian objections to the notion of the GTHL eliminating bodychecking – followed by your easy-peasy, eloquent answers.

1. Bodychecking has always been part of hockey.

Sure, but that doesn’t mean that taking it out wouldn’t make for a better game. Hockey has been around for about 100 years – and there have been plenty of modifications that have improved the game for players and fans.

Even the Neanderthal Hockey League, never the most progressive organization, has over the years changed its game. Imagine an NHL tilt featuring 14 players crowding the rink, with rules forbidding goalies from dropping to the ice but allowing the team protecting a lead to ice the puck without being penalized with a D-zone faceoff, and permitting so much clutching and grabbing that skilled players could hardly get anywhere with the puck? All possible at times in the NHL’s checkered past; all improved by tweaking once-sacrosanct rules.

Bodychecking slows the game down. Without it, hockey is faster to play and better to watch. Bodychecking has always been part of NHL hockey, but it’s not allowed in lots of other leagues, and in the world’s best hockey – Olympic & World Championship tournaments – bodychecking is almost nonexistent. Time to take it out of the GTHL.

2. Hitting makes for entertaining hockey.

A good hard check is can be exciting, sure. But when an 11-year-old gets flattened by another kid a head taller and 50 lbs heavier – and crumples to the ice – there is a problem. The minor game doesn’t need this kind of “entertainment.” Besides, as charged up as some fans and some players get from a solid check, a great goal, pass, backcheck or save is what really makes your highlight reel. Even in the pros.

3. Kids have to learn how to take and receive a hit while they’re young, so they don’t hurt each other worse by starting later.

Don’t buy this one, Scott & John. It’s dumb and outdated – don’t you think it sounds a bit like something from a 19th-century child-rearing manual? “Children should be seen and not heard – any transgression should be quickly and firmly disciplined,” etc. Besides, it’s just plain bs. Years ago, Quebec took checking out of minor hockey until the kids hit their mid-teens. Guess what? Quebec 16-year olds now suffer fewer checking-related injuries than 16-year-olds in the GTHL do – not what you’d expect if you believed this old piece of received, um, wisdom.

Besides, why do kids have to learn to hit? Why do they have to learn how to take a hit? Think about this for a second: what if we said that kids have to be taught how to fight – how to throw and receive a punch – because they might need to fight at school? Should we be knocking our kids around at home just to prep them for life outside the front door? Kids have to learn how to hit? Really?

4. The players like it.

Well, some players like it. But some don’t like it, and some outright dislike it. That’s why you’re seeing all these kids move away from the GTHL to non-contact leagues. That’s one big reason that enrolment in minor hockey is down nationwide.

And even the kids that maybe like checking initially…well, once they get a concussion or two, they don’t seem to like it so much anymore. Prolonged brain injury has a way of dampening that enthusiasm. Plus there’s this: even the big, bruising kids dream of scoring a breakaway goal in the finals. Not even those “role” players (you don’t really want to use the word “enforcer” when you’re talking about kids, do you?) – not even those kids dream of laying on the big hit and knocking another kid out of the finals. Nobody dreams of being a goon who lays someone out with a late hit or a slash or a staged fight. The NHL’s goons were all once kids too, dreaming of scoring the big goal in the big game.

5. The GTHL is one of Canada’s premier feeder leagues for the pros, and we have to prepare our players for bigger & better things.

No – you don’t. Actually, you should just try to offer the best experience for the greatest number of kids playing in your league. Sure, a very few each year will go on to pro hockey – a handful to the AHL, one or two to Europe, a few more to college and university programs. A fraction of these will end up one day in the NHL; a sliver of those will end up with a hockey career that lasts more than a couple of years. You guys know the odds.

So structuring the rules of your league around the rules of the NHL (a league that 99.9% of your players won’t get a sniff at) makes no sense. For all but 0.01% of the kids in your care, hockey is recreation – and, Scott & John, when you yourselves go play rec hockey with other guys your age, nobody fights, nobody slashes, and nobody bodychecks the puck carrier, even if he has his head down. You don’t have any hope of turning pro, so you wisely choose not to risk your body and brain when you step on the ice. The overwhelming majority of your 40,000 GTHL kids won’t be turning pro either – so why are you choosing to risk their developing bodies and minds because that’s what the pros do?

So there you go, guys. All the answers. Anyone says anything else, we’re sure you can improvise a little, stickhandle your way through it – as we said, we’re sure you’ve been pondering all of this yourselves anyway.

Make this change now, and you’ll be seen as quick-thinking hockey men, ahead of the curve instead of trying to hold back the tide. (Well, ok – not just Quebec but the entire U.S. Hockey Association has already moved on this, but you get the drift.) If you don’t make a change, you’re going to see more kids hurt, more kids turned off your brand of hockey. You’ll keep losing players to those other leagues, and one day, you won’t be able to hold out any longer.

You’ll be forced to change, and you can never control things as well when you’re forced to do something instead of choosing ahead of time to act.



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7 thoughts on “Dear GTHL – glad you’re eliminating bodychecking

  • Superscout

    Great piece. Apart from the numerous excellent reasons you give for the GTHL to eliminate bodychecking, the point that really sticks with me is how few players will actually make it big. I personally still believe that players should be allowed to dream the dream of making it but when you look at the numbers – as you do – the sensible thing to say is that the dream should not be pursued by all players at all costs. In fact, for me, the dream should be pursued within the perimeters of a player reaching his/her optimal level. Will that level be pro for every player who has the dream? Obviously not. And so that begs the question, “Why pursue a dream beyond its reasonable point and at the cost of one’s health?” And so, in the case of hockey, should all players be subjected to the expectations of a professional hockey world that is so ruthless that it these days doesn’t seem to care that it’s best player in a generation, Sidney Crosby, hasn’t played in over a year and may never play again? I think the answer is no – especially when, in my opinion – and clearly in yours – the game of ice hockey can be a very great game without bodychecking.

  • Interested Observer

    You need to go watch some USA hockey before you hold them up as an example. No neck guards are worn by players – head checks are acceptable and quite common and the checks from behind are a common occurrence. I agree the GThL might not be perfect but it is already way ahead of the curve. The only thing o holding back the GTHL from being even more progressive is the club managers who shot down concussion safety protocols last season because they felt the extra $20 costs would be a burden to players who causally use @200 sticks

    • the Abbot Post author

      Great observations about USA hockey, IO. I’ve seen some, but mostly annual tournaments (Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc) that my son’s GTHL teams have been in – and although these tournaments were refreshingly free of dirty checks, head shots, stickwork, etc, I agree that tournaments are admittedly not representative of regular league play. It sounds as if you know a lot about this, so thanks for enlightening us.

      But I don’t see “GTHL” and “progressive” as belonging together. Putting “STOP” stickers on the back of kids’ jerseys hasn’t stopped checking from behind – and I do watch a lot of GTHL hockey.

      The bigger question, though, is why hockey for kids (single-A and possibly double-AA kids, with neither designs nor talent for making a career in the sport) – kids who are playing recreational hockey – must include bodychecking just because the pros do. Adult rec hockey is often intense and physical but does not allow deliberate bodychecking. Ask people who play good-level adult hockey, and they’ll say sure, their league is tough, but respectful – everyone has to get up and go to work the next day, etc. And yet it is still undeniably hockey.

      Taking bodychecking out at the lower GTHL levels would reduce injuries, accentuate skills OTHER than bodychecking, and encourage more kids to keep playing.

  • Carol Yack

    What a GREAT article! For god sakes, will somebody please listen?!!!? My 12 year old played ‘A’ up to peewee when I saw the clear danger and took him out of contact hockey and put him into the Toronto Non Contact League. My 6 year old is now playing tennis!!!!! It’s true, hockey is losing kids because of archaic rules. When we know better, we should do better.

  • non contact concussed

    The late hit, the hit from behind, the bodychecking and major penalties still exist in non conctact leagues and especially in the tournaments. The key is now how any non contact league first proactively and then reactively deals with infractions. Typically the referees are not on board and let most things lazily go. Second the president, directors and coaches who ALSO talk a good story don’t follow up with the reactive suspensions, and often it’s these coaches and directors kids that lead the leagues in penalties and rough play.

  • Boycott the GTHL

    Excellent article! Had two boys in GTHL A with the oldest just completed his first year of contact at 11 years old. My son loved the contact and on more then one occassion caught an player with a clean check that left the child on the ice requiring a trainer to come out. His efforts were applauded by his teammates, the coaches and the parents. I’d watch GTHL games and occasionally hear parents screaming for their children to “hit someone” or “take him out”. It was a lot of excitment and was great! Sitting back now, what an embaressment this league is.

    Why does an 11 year old have to learn how to line someone up on the ice and hit them as hard and as fast as they can? Why do we encourage that and cheer for 11 year olds when they hit each other? What on earth are we teaching our children and what sort of people will they grow into? What sort of risk are we putting are children at? Broken bones? Concussions? Paralysis? …. For what??

    I’m proud to say that my kids will not play in a league where we teach and encourage them to be “goons”. Its dangerous and irresponsible of the GTHL board, coaches and parents to allow this to happen. Next season my kids will play non-contact for about 1/2 the price of the GTHL and have twice the fun learning how to play hockey, NOT how to hit each other.

    The “non-profit” GTHL “community serving” organization fleeced us all to the tune of $880,000 in profits for the 2010/11 season! Just ask Scott for a copy of the finanicial statements and you can see for yourself. We will see shortly how much they took out of the community for the 2011/12 season. This is a “non-profit” organization at work with over $2.2M in cash sitting in the bank and encourging our children to brutalize each other for some sort of sick reasoning that they might need to know how to hit when they make it to the NHL? How can they even be allowed to call themselves a “non-profit”? They are all about the money, not about the community and have no sense of social responsibility.

    The only way to get change is to vote with your dollars. NYHL is non-contact and there is the TNCHL as well. Do the right thing for your children.