We must show our kids that's not hockey

This Just In...

January 28, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

TWO WORDS in the Massachusetts manslaughter trial of Thomas Junta burned my ears: "That's hockey." Heard that one before, many times. It's macho shorthand, used by hockey fans to defend fights in the National Hockey League, and by hockey dads and hockey moms to dismiss peers who express some squeamishness about rough play on the ice. Think NHL stars set a bad example by dropping the gloves and going at it? My son elbowed your son "behind the play" and got away with it? "That's hockey."

In other words: "The coolest, fastest game on Earth is a contact sport and sometimes there's more contact than the rule book allows, so get used to it or have little Josh take up tennis."

"That's hockey" is often used by coaches or hard-core hockey parents as a retort to the uninitiated, who wince the first few times they see their kids being checked in the middle of the ice or against the boards. I can attest that it's a particularly tough adjustment -- seeing your hockey Squirt (9-10 years old) step from no-check, kiddie hockey to the faster, more physical level where certain forms of checking are allowed, coached and encouraged.

From the testimony in the Rink Rage trial, it is apparent that Thomas Junta was in the midst of this transition. He took his 10-year-old son and some of his friends to a Boston-area rink for a pickup game against Michael Costin's sons and their friends. According to testimony, the boys on the Costin team were two to three years older than those on Junta's. That meant not only a physical disparity but also a critical gap in experience: Junta's son and his friends had not reached youth hockey's legal checking age; Costin's had.

In such a circumstance, with no referees present, the potential for injury, tears, misunderstanding or blowup was quite high. But that didn't seem to matter to either Costin or Junta. The scrimmage commenced.

Junta's son's team outscored the older boys, and that's when play became rough, with slashing and elbowing. There was a fistfight.

That's not hockey, so any rational parent would have ordered his kids off the ice.

Just last week, at Mount Pleasant Ice Arena in Northeast Baltimore, the coach of a Mites (6-8 years old) team did just that in the middle of a game. He had seen too many infractions by the visiting club, and play had become too rough. His warnings to the opposing coach did not seem to have an effect; the rough stuff continued into the second period of play. The Baltimore coach considered the situation out of control, so he forfeited the game.

Too bad Thomas Junta hadn't thought to do the same.

Instead, he argued with Costin, the adult supervising the scrimmage, and had a confrontation with him off the ice. In response to Junta's protests of the rough stuff, Costin uttered what might have been his last words: "That's hockey."

No one who's ever heard this kind of argument -- one parent complaining about rough play, another essentially kissing it off -- should have been surprised to learn from trial testimony that, in the next instant, Costin and Junta were fighting. And no matter that Junta had a 120-pound advantage over Costin. This is macho, incendiary stuff: Your kid's a bully! Oh yeah? Get a life!

After the fight, Junta left the rink. But then he went back inside. He testified that he did so out of concern for his son. But it's my hunch he was angered by the first scuffle, still had Costin's "That's hockey" ringing in his ears, and let rage take over. Within a few minutes, Costin lay unconscious on the floor, the victim of a horrific -- and fatal -- beating.

The Rink Rage case has been presented as evidence of the fanatical involvement of parents in their kids' sports.

But let's keep this simple. Thomas Junta succumbed to rage and turned to violence -- the way some parents do when they slap their children, the way some men (including Junta, in 1991) do when they beat their wives or girlfriends, and the way some professional hockey players do when they drop their gloves and fight during games.

Of course, I've spoken to numerous parents who think the Junta case has nothing to do with hockey. What happened in that Massachusetts rink, they say, could have happened on any of a million soccer fields or baseball diamonds across the country.

They might be correct. But I don't think we can look past what happened in the Rink Rage case -- the rough play that started among boys and spilled over into fatal violence between their dads -- and not see a link to the sport itself. The sport has a long history of violence. Even my son's PlayStation NHL game has digitized players in knockdown fights.

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