"TAKE HIM OUT," a coach screamed at his bench. The direction was heard across the rink, as the team made the line change, just after an opposing player scored his second goal of the night.
Take him out, is that what the game has become? Whatever happened to being happy with just knocking a guy off the puck and when did we cross the line from sport to combat?
Take him out tells me that the coach should be nowhere near the bench. If a player follows such a suggestion and ends another young man's hockey dream, should such a hit be celebrated or prosecuted?
Junior players are at this level of play to get a shot at a future. The problem is that so many of these kids lose sight of the end goal once they lace up the skates. Common sense, sportsmanship and decency often take a back seat to making a highlight reel. Every team seems to have a player that will often cross the line; it's up to the rest of the team to keep that guy under control.
Back in the fall of 1996 I had the bright idea of convincing the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds to come to Alaska to play our team. We had just won the Junior C National Championship (in a final over the Seattle Ironmen) and were getting ready to play our first season in the Western States Hockey League. Obviously we were a far cry from being able to compete with the powerful Thunderbirds, but the invitation was accepted.
Our team was made up of Alaska players that had gone outside to play junior and, for one reason or another, came back home. We certainly did not have any business on the ice with players like the NHL's Patrick Marleau and a number of other future NHL players.
We assigned our most tenacious defenseman to shadow Marleau for the entire weekend, that kid's name was Joey Johnson. Johnson was all of 5-4, and maybe 150 pounds, and certainly not a physical threat to the 6-2, 200+ pound future NHL All-Star.
During the second period break of our second game with Seattle, then Thunderbirds coach Don Nachbaur could be heard in the tunnel screaming at his team because the WHL team had only a 4-2 lead on our Alaskans.
Johnson was unable to stop Marleau from scoring a natural hat trick in the 3rd period and we lost that game 10-2.
Nachbaur had a bench full of players that would skate through a wall for him and he never sent anybody to take care of Johnson. For the first two periods our goalie, Stefan Sanders, did his best impression of a brick wall, shutting down shot after shot from Nachbaur's prospects. Did the WHL veteran coach send somebody to run at Sanders? No way.
After the game, Nachbaur was all praises for the play of our team, and for the way that Johnson was able to neutralize Marleau, through the first two periods anyway.
We played, they played, and they won. It was done the right way. If two guys decided to dance and one ended up on the ice, it was over. After the series, both teams met in the lobby of the Soldotna Sports Center for autographs and pictures. Johnson was still at Marleau's side as the two became fast friends. I'm sure that the memory of the experience brings a smile to both men's' faces today.
Sportsmanship, camaraderie, and great memories are assets that make hockey so much better than other sports. Let's get the word respect back into the equation. Players need to stand together against bad operators, or donkey coaches, that suggest otherwise.
Direction has to come from the top and that is USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. Somebody needs to enforce the standards and give the level of play some strict direction. The game is under a microscope and the clock is ticking.