Don't let the title fool you. This is likely to be the most important Daily Dish I have ever written. So important that I've spent almost two weeks putting the pieces together to get it done. I can only hope that the parents of prospects will be able to take away from this a new set of standards to force teams to maintain.
The culture of junior hockey is different than any other sport on the planet. It is very rare to see any team stocked with all local players. Prospects are recruited from everywhere and it is fair to say that the game has the highest percentage of its athletes living away from home in the name of athletic development. Let’s be honest here; players that are, at best, marginal ACHA Division II or III prospects should not be expecting the system of development to be their ticket to Madison Square Garden...unless they are simply there to buy a ticket.
Parents have a tendency to believe that their child can accomplish anything and is going to miraculously enhance his game to eventually raise the Stanley Cup. The hard reality is the fact that most are going to be lucky to just continue playing the game at the college level.
To be fair, junior hockey is supposed to be for players 18-20 years-old. With so many junior programs on the ice, more and more young prospects 15-17 years-old are leaving home and managing to get themselves onto rosters. That’s no longer a difficult task.
With well over 400 junior teams across North America, junior coaches often struggle to fill out the rosters. When that coach scours for potential prospects, often he is introducing his program to each prospect's family. The coach talks about the community, facility, the bus, and how the prospect is going to fit onto the team's roster.
Parents ask the most important questions; is the child going to play, get a full ride to Ohio State, or get called to the podium on the first day of the NHL Draft? What they should be asking is what the team does to make sure that everybody that comes into contact with the young prospect is properly screened in compliance with USA Hockey, AAU, or Hockey Canada's guidelines. Most programs do things the right way but many are forced to cut corners to make ends meet.
Like a lock on the door, an armed guard at the gate, or a high end security system, it is all but impossible to eliminate every threat. The trick is to provide enough of a deterrent to suggest another target. The problem is when the front door is left wide open, and that is the prime issue with athletics in the junior age bracket.
Graham James, Jerry Sandusky, Paul Contreras, Bobby Dodd, and even Brent Agrusa would have easily been able to get through the initial screening processes. The problem is the fact that few of the organizations these guys worked with had/has any type of policy in place to identify and eliminate dangerous situations. For James and Sandusky, their transgression has led to criminal convictions. Dodd only lost his job as a result of the allegations. Neither Contreras nor Agrusa have ever been charged, regardless of the fact that their behavior raised a lot of red flags and eyebrows.
Our legal system leaves victims wide-open for abuse. Innocence until proven guilty is a core value of freedom. It is obvious that the folks at Penn State University failed, or simply refused, to see all the red flags related to Sandusky and our society accepts, and even encourages, some of the social interactions Sandusky had with many of his victims.
Getting closer to hockey, the case involving Graham James had little impact on the game in regards to change. Coaches are still getting themselves into compromising positions and are subject to the whimsical allegations. Some coaches opened the door with their own behavior and should have never put themselves into that position. If coaches give others a reason to whisper, they will. Smart people simply eliminate speculation by refusing to get themselves into questionable situations and interactions.
Prospects and parents have a right to know which leagues are enforcing the standards already on the books and which are not.
As you are aware, nothing is 100% for certain and it is incumbent upon those in positions of responsibility to ensure that every measure is taken to protect all the players, coaches, and volunteers involved in the game.
There is always room for improvement and further development and if one believes at any time this is not the case, then they should get out of the game.
There are many ways parents, coaches, volunteers and administrators can work to ensure a safe environment for athletes and one of the most misunderstood is screening. Screening is just a tool, whether it be for coaches, trainers, volunteers within an organization, on and off ice officials, whomever, screening with is just one of the tools that is used.
So what is most leagues’ position on screening? One owner said it best. "It is easy to introduce screening mandates but who is going to pay for them? The leagues pass on USA Hockey policies to the teams and expect all to comply."
"Most leagues could not care less about where a 19 or 20 year-old sleeps at night. Do we screen everybody? Heck no, nobody does. We are lucky to be able to get the billets we do have and don't bother with the checks unless we are talking about a minor," one coach said about the billet screening.
What about the players?
These guys are not always the innocent impressionable victims. Last season we heard a story about one player that impregnated both the billet mom and her 16 year-old daughter. Another player was accused of child pornography after he shared a video of himself and a young girl doing the deed. Other videos later surfaced with the player and a number of other unsuspecting girls. Screen the billets, heck, who is screening the players?
If we could hit the re-wind button and go back 50 years to install one policy that simply makes sense, it would be this from AAU:
The adoption of clear policies and procedures designed to ensure that young athletes are never left alone with individual adults; and requiring all AAU volunteers and staff to report any incidents of suspected child abuse to law enforcement and to officials of the AAU and related sports clubs.
Sometimes the simplest of solutions make the most sense.
I encourage everybody to be proactive in the protection of our young prospects and this also includes protection from them-selves. Junior programs have a duty to enhance the development of these prospects, both as athletes and as young men.
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