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Coaches should share responsibility for idiotic acts of their players

March 26, 2013


The first round of Ontario Hockey League playoffs has given us some splendid hockey, stirring comebacks and heart-breaking collapses. Perhaps most importantly, however, they have also shown that the league has no clue when it comes to administering discipline.

Of the 20 games thus far, there have been six decided by a goal, two in overtime, and a handful of others with an outcome embellished by an empty-net goal. Sadly, while their teammates were playing superb hockey, seven knuckleheads committed fouls so egregious as to have collectively earned themselves 33 games worth of suspensions.

Yes, the league has the knee-jerk reaction end of the discipline equation pretty much nailed. It’s handed down some pretty stiff supplemental sentences this year — and it deserves praise for taking the lead in this regard — but it has to get poor marks for preventing checks from behind, head checks and similarly cheap shots.

Clearly, for players to be playing with such lack of discipline at the most important time of the year shows the deterrent value in about 300 games of suspensions this season would seem to be negligible. Joey getting suspended for eight games in Sault Ste. Marie apparently means little to the guy in Oshawa who has to choose between putting his shoulder into the opponent’s chest or noggin.

Ryan O’Connor, the fifth-year Barrie Colts defenceman who got suspended for three games for a check on the head-down, looking-for-the-puck Kingston Frontenac Spencer Watson Saturday in Barrie, is not a hooligan. He has never had more than 55 penalty minutes in a season, and that was four years ago.

If you’re not going to ascribe any malice — and perhaps the league saw none, since it gave O’Connor the same suspension it handed his teammate, Anthony Camara, for what amounted to a hissy fit in the same game — we’re left to wonder what compels a veteran player to do such a thing at a point in the series where it could have a significant impact in its outcome. Conversely, we should look for a reason why a 16-year-old player, more than 60 games into his major junior career, would suddenly look at his feet when he’s trying to squeeze between two defenders.

(ed. note: O’Connor’s suspension was later pegged at 10 games; apparently malice was ascribed).

Is there a common denominator?

How about the coaches?

What kind of coaching has Ryan O’Connor received during five years in the league that he doesn’t know how to deliver a hip check, or hasn’t been conditioned to aim his shoulder for the chest of the onrushing forward? Why has Spencer Watson not yet been taught that when you’re rushing one-on-two and you lose the puck, the play is over and you protect yourself?

If you spend enough time around sport, you come to learn that teams reflect their coaches: Coaches who berate officials tend to have teams full of mouthy players; articulate coaches tend to foster thoughtfulness among their players; coaches who remain calm in crises tend to have players who don’t panic.

Ultimately it’s the coach who’s responsible for his players’ actions. Maybe the solution for the OHL is to start giving parallel suspensions to coaches when their players behave like idiots.

Of course, that won’t completely solve the problem. A fellow whose history suggests he’s unlikely to hit somebody from behind, deliver a two-handed slash or stick his armoured elbow into an opponent’s jaw may still commit such a foul. It’s an intense game. He’ll get suspended and maybe he’ll learn a lesson from the experience, but in a league where there are no so many suspensions players may have become desensitized to them — and three or four games in a 68-game season may be as much vacation as punishment, anyway — how likely is it anyone else will take notice?

The flagrant misdeeds of the playoffs suggest no one.

Even if players aren’t getting the message of deterrence the coaches should, but perhaps coping with suspensions has just become part of the cost of doing business in the OHL, like three-game weekends. If coaches are similarly disciplined, however, maybe they’ll put the x’s and o’s away for a while and go back to teaching the skills better: Show defencemen how to punish an oncoming forward without maiming him; show players how to defend themselves if they have to chase a puck in the corner with an opponent bearing down on him; explain how discretion and heroics aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

More than being sorry if one of their players commits a disabling foul, coaches should be embarrassed when it happens. Similarly, when one of their players is badly hurt, more than just exuding sympathy a coach should be asking himself if there was something he failed to teach that might have reduced the liklihood of injury. It doesn’t seem to be happening now.

The league has tried to get thuggery out of the game. If you ask Spencer Watson today how that’s working for him, he might suggest it’s not working that well. It’s time to make the coaches more than mere bystanders in the disciplinary process. If they truly care about the integrity of the game and the wellbeing of their players, they should be happy to do so.

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