Immediate agitation does not explain the majority of violent incidents in the NHL, even though it does have a hand in some cruel acts that take place on the ice. A researcher from U of T has shown in a study that it is the aggressive mentality of players that is the problem, not just frustration over recent events.

Chris Gee, a doctoral candidate in Physical Education and Health, looked at footage from hockey games from last season and determined the motives behind the acts.

“I looked at all the penalties handed out during the first 200 games of last season then dichotomized them according to previous literature,” he said. “Several studies concerned with underlying motives of penalties found 15 acts were overwhelmingly committed with the intent to physically or psychologically harm an opponent: cross-checking, spearing, boarding, fighting, kneeing, high-sticking and others. These behaviours adhere to the definition of what constitutes an aggressive act and have therefore become the indices when one is examining aggression in hockey. All other infractions fall under the category ‘non-aggressive’.”

“The hypocrisy inherent in sport violence has always intrigued me,” continued Gee. “Here we have behaviours that are actionable according to our criminal code, yet within the socially constructed confines of sport, the law does not apply.”

Gee discovered that these ‘aggressive’ acts were a result of a learned aggression and an attempt to intimidate opponents. He believes these attitudes are copied by children who watch professional hockey on television and are taught to kids by their minor league coaches.

“The NHL is by far the most potent model for young aspiring hockey players in the country,” said Gee. “Research has shown that these athletes often adopt similar behaviours in an attempt to emulate their professional heroes. The result appears to be the increasing legitimization of violence at younger and younger age brackets, with fights becoming regular occurrences at atom and pewee hockey games.”

“Kids start to learn to be violent against opponents as soon as winning becomes the most important thing,” continued Gee. “The win-at-all-costs mentality is very conducive to the use of aggressive tactics. Male children learn very early on that physical dominance, toughness and strength are highly tied to contemporary definitions of masculinity. Therefore, hockey becomes a way of reaffirming these attributes.”

Gee believes that this is not a healthy mentality for children to learn. He thinks that Canadian minor hockey programs need a switch in attitude for the good of the game and for all the children that play it.

“In this country we have a pyramid-shaped sporting program, where tons of kids start off in hockey but as you move up there are fewer and fewer spots,” commented the researcher. “This unfortunately heightens the competition between teams and athletes and dramatically increases the likelihood that violent outbursts will result.”

He also believes that redefining the term ‘losing’ is needed to solve the problem: “The only way to rid this country of its win-at-all-costs mentality is to redefine what losing means. Until losing is no longer associated with being weak and inferior men are going to do everything in their power to win.”

The doctoral student sees a marked difference between how hockey is played in Europe and North America: “It seems that the Europeam hockey philosophy is one that is rooted in skill development and teamwork. Europeans are more highly skilled and therefore do not rely on these [aggressive] tactics to appear competent.”

Focusing on skill, rather than aggression, may be a positive step towards turning Canada’s minor hockey program around.

Gee is not without hope when he assesses the state of one of Canada’s most cherished games. He sees hope in recent studies that have been conducted to try to understand the rising level of violence in minor hockey.

“The current report out of B.C. on hockey violence, conducted by Bernie Pascall, appears to show that parents, coaches and young players are fed up with the current status of hockey. The report has prompted several new policies to be put in place, and has put B.C. at the forefront in the fight against sporting violence. Hopefully we are moving in the right direction with respect to our attitudes toward violence.”

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