Archive for December 28, 2015

The Minor Hockey Goals We Need

for publication December 24, 2015

Ross Brewitt

Two weeks ago, December 11 to be exact, my regular Friday column was a response prompted by Bauer’s “First Shift” nationwide promotion to get more Canadian kids playing hockey.

You might be thinking, “what, Canada needs to boost enrolment?” Sadly, the surveys don’t lie. The indications are, hockey is becoming a rich kids game. And it hasn’t happened overnight.

The calls and email that followed the column included comments from NHL players, past and present, all listing names of those who had contributed to their early hockey experience.

The most common thread repeated in the responses was the fact that one person stood out, usually a coach or a father, often one-and-the-same, a man who made the game easier to understand. Invariably, those minorf and youth hockey coahes taught players the great lesson that is “teamwork,” with the other being it isn’t always going to go the player’s way. Unfortunately, the bad coaches, didn’t teach anyone anything.

But I was fortunate, having the same coach for five years, long time ago, in what is now Thunder Bay, when I was one of those kids.

As a youngster growing up during the WWII era in the railroad division town of Schreiber, my first recall of “rink skating” was in the Quonset hut arena where the temperature was always ten degrees cooler than outdoors.

I was six, living in my grandparents home on Main Street, when I received an unwrapped Christmas gift of hockey gloves from my uncle Doug, a brakeman on the CPR. I have written before about coming down the stairs that Christmas morning and despite the dim light of the winter dawn, I could make them out. I have forgotten many a Christmas gift, but never that first pair of gloves.

Several years went by and I was back in the Lakehead with my parents. I experienced my first taste of organized hockey with the Elks Peewee program, as a Ranger, playing homes games at the Collegiate outdoor rink.

My father, a CPR fireman and a notable local baseball pitcher in his day, had no interest in hockey, he simply ignored it. The only skates I possessed were a large pair of hand-me-down blades to “grow into,” their origin remains a mystery. Those Christmas gloves, and a pair of flimsy felt-and-sticks shin-pads were the only gear I had. At the time the Elk’s ran a six-team league, and on the Rangers there were two coaches named McEachern, gave out itchy replica Ranger’s sweaters and stockings I never wore because I didn’t own hockey pants.

I played my first two games as a forward, but since our family wasn’t flush enough to consider hockey gear as a required expenditure. Therefore, since necessity rules I volunteered to play goal, because being a goalie came with free equipment. Pads, gloves, and a “protector.” Still, no pants, but I wasn’t  quibbling.

The following year, at the urging of my lifelong friend Tony Kaplanis to join him, I took my one regular stick, the now inadequate Christmas gloves, barely protective shin-guards and big skates to a Minnesota Park rink tryout with the East End Athletic Association bantams.

Turns out it was the spring of that year when my parents split, and late in the fall came the day I first met coach Walter Shurget. He was a late-20’s parent, and after offering me a card to sign, he became a surrogate father, not only to me but others on the team.

We needed someone to set higher standards, to make us follow instructions, to believe in ourselves, and perform to our abilities. I was now converted to a defenceman, and over the next five winters as our age brackets changed, he moved up with us, a firm hand always coaching, guiding, and keeping us in line. I wore the “A” in two of those seasons and twice was his “C”. We won City, Intercity and District championships.

After all these years, in business and life, I and many of my East End teammates, adhere to his teachings to this day. I know this because those of us who remain talk. I don’t know any of the thirty-odd players over that five year period who didn’t live by his instructions and advice. We all went on to better things.

This is what minor hockey needs, influencers like Walter Shurget, more than they need coaches with salaries for hire, or exhibition tours to Finland. What they need is the chance to play.

I applaud the Bauer initiative in making equipment affordable to the parents and kids who would otherwise be left behind because of financial handicaps, without experiencing the positive result of shared teamwork, and the stabilizing reward of being part of a team.

Walter Shurget and the East End AA, were my role models. I was lucky.

The Private Thoughts of a Fighter

1136 for publication December 8, 2015

Ross Brewitt

Last Friday my regular column originally entitled, “Fighting: The Dark Side” generated considerable response. There were emails, phone calls, a couple of sidewalk conversations, plus one discussion over an excellent red wine.

In 20-years-plus of regular Fridays going back to the beginning in 1994, I have written many times about fighting, at least 11 full columns, plus sections in multi-subject pieces. They covered every level from minor hockey, through junior, up to the NHL.

Sadly, like many others in the business, I have also written on the subject of the aftermath of hockey fights, and how we are still learning about the lingering post-career effects of “mini-concussions.” In fact, we’re only beginning to know about the proven results of frequent head hits, and what we do know isn’t good.

It took me back to the mid-90’s when I was having lunch with a former NHL tough guy, a fighter and veteran enforcer of the era, who had abruptly retired a few games into his last season. He was a respected member of his team, feared by opponents, and followed the company line of keeping the other team honest. He did it their way until he couldn’t any more, then simply packed it up and walked away.

At this point I have to be careful, because in listening to him tell his story, watching as his eyes welled-up and he struggled to keep his composure, he revealed how he could no longer continue with the injuries, both taken and inflicted, the headaches, and sleepless nights. He also mentioned the constant medications, and disabilities, and more to the point, the never-ending arrival of young, eager battlers year-after-year looking to make a name and career for themselves.

“My kids were hearing me referred to as a goon. Hell, my wife stopped going to the home games. It’s difficult, and weighs on you… I’d find myself wondering is this the guy who drops me?” The remark was made quietly like it was still a viable threat. I held onto the notes from that interview, and had double-underlined the sentence.

Based on a promise made, I have never revealed the identity of that player, where he played, or where he lives today. Not his stats, his team, teammates or coaches. Watching him break down, struggling with regret and dealing with the knowledge of injuries inflicted and careers brought to a screeching halt, stays with me to this day. I saw an entirely different side to the fight game, away from the roars and cheering fans enjoying the gladiator spectacle.

Later, having the opportunity to speak to other players with the same “tells” and tip-offs always blurred and masked by the gallows humour I saw in my lunch partner that day, it changed my perspective.

In the years that followed we saw modifications in the NHL game, where the job of first-string enforcer was a prized position open to but a few in the expanding league. Next was the farcical staged fighting, while expendable performers came and went, with only a few reaching “veteran” status.

Over time I took two stances, and for me at least, they remain the same today, cast in stone through my dealings with many players, past and present.

First, anyone who makes it to the NHL, in any position, is a “tough guy.” Some are just tougher than others. The second is while fighting is on the decline right now, it will always be a part of this game, and nothing I say, or write will change that fact.

Another truth about the fighting fallacy comes down to the ones making the ultimate decision to allow it to remain a part of the game. It lies with people who rarely, if ever, have been in a knock-down, haymaker fight.

The good news? All those “tough guys” playing today will be the ones to sort out the decline in fighting, by policing themselves. Even the stars will shoulder part of that load.

Just like they once did, a long time ago.