This column appeared in Wednesday's Kamloops Daily News:
In the days before the WHL’s regular season opened, the league summoned its general managers and head coaches to Calgary for a meeting.
During said gabfest, there was much talk about the respect factor, or lack of same, between opposing players on the ice, about not hitting players who find themselves, for whatever reason, in vulnerable positions, about headshots and about hits from behind.
Guy Charron, the head coach of the Kamloops Blazers, put together a video presentation showing, among other things, players who were in vulnerable positions absorbing hits. He didn’t have to dig too deeply to find examples of players not protecting themselves and of some bad hits. He looked at one game and found instances of both on the first two shifts.
After the meeting, the coaches, who all are in agreement that these hits have to be removed from the game, returned home and immediately set about spreading the word.
Unfortunately, it seems to have fallen on some deaf ears.
In the regular season’s first 22 games, referees handed out 13 checking-from-behind minors and one major. There also were three minors and three majors for checks to the head.
There were other instances when what could have been checking-from-behind penalties were called boarding. There was a checking-from-behind incident in a Friday night game in Kamloops that was ignored by the officials.
And when the weekend was done, nine players were awaiting possible suspensions, each of them having been tossed from a game for one indiscretion or another.
These players included Mathew Dumba, a defenceman with the Red Deer Rebels who was a first-round selection by the Minnesota Wild in the NHL’s 2012 draft, and forward Ty Rattie of the Portland Winterhawks, a second-round pick by the St. Louis Blues in 2011 who is seen as a potential WHL scoring champ this season.
On Friday night, forward Andrew Johnson of the Moose Jaw Warriors won a game by scoring on a penalty shot in overtime. The next night, he was ejected with a major penalty for charging.
In Medicine Hat, Tigers forward Kale Kessy, who turns 20 in December, took out Lethbridge Hurricanes defenceman Ryan Pilon, who turns 16 next month. Pilon was the third pick in the WHL’s 2011 bantam draft. Kessy was given a major and game misconduct for the headshot; Pilon didn’t return to the game and may be out for a while.
“We lose one of the top young defencemen in the league to a headshot elbow,” Rich Preston, the Hurricanes’ general manager and head coach, told Darren Steinke of the Medicine Hat News. “What are you going to do?
“You have to try and take that out of the game.”
Later in the same game, Lethbridge defenceman Spencer Galbraith dropped Medicine Hat forward Hunter Shinkaruk, who is likely to be an early selection in the NHL’s 2013 draft, with a headshot and was tossed from the proceedings.
“It is frustrating as a league and as a coach,” Shaun Clouston, the Tigers’ GM/head coach, told Steinke. “We had a meeting in Calgary, the coaches and the GMs.
“It is just something that we have to keep stressing to the players. We have to have a little bit more respect for each other and stay away from those headshots and stay away from the dangerous plays.”
Charron, for his part, sounds at least a bit frustrated.
“It’s up to us as coaches,” Charron said. “There are no other people to blame. There are certain things about encouraging the physical play for our team. We always say we have to finish our checks. . . . I tell the players, ‘If you see his number and you hit a player you’re apt to get a penalty and perhaps injure a player.’
“Just tell your players, ‘I want you to be physical but if you hit a guy from behind expect to be penalized. Perhaps you will injure a player and then you’re going to be suspended.’ ”
Kamloops defenceman Tyler Hansen was hit with two checking-from-behind minors on Friday night. On Saturday, he took an inadvertent shot to the head and ended up being taken to hospital in an ambulance. The game is physical enough, then, without players drilling other players from behind.
“It’s my role to be physical and tough but there are rules in this league that protect guys,” Hansen said of the two penalties he took. “When you see those numbers you have to steer (the player) into the boards and rub him out; you can’t put all your weight into him and try to finish him.”
Charron added: “Our thing is to make the players aware. But it’s an intense game. I tell our players, ‘If you see the number, don’t hit him.’ We have to teach them how to play to avoid those injuries. We constantly say, ‘Now it’s one hand on your stick, stick on puck and ride them off.’
“We don’t want our players to be hurt. We understand that these things need to be addressed.”
As of Tuesday evening, Richard Doerksen, the WHL’s vice-president, hockey, had doled out 11 games in suspensions to six different players. There may be more to come, perhaps even today.
This is just like when you’re building a deck with hammer and nails and that first nail keeps bending. You can’t quit. You have to keep hammering away.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)
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