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Goal! Youth hockey sportsmanship program aims to produce good skates

With the first dropped puck of the boys’ high school hockey tournament today, a weekend of as-pure-as-it-gets sports commenced. The tournament — despite some silly yearning for “the good old days” — remains an authentic slice of Minnesota culture.

But the game’s culture is in transition, and for the better.

That’s not only because girls now hold up about 21 percent of the hockey sky; 9,431 of the 43,841 kids who played youth hockey in the state last season were named Caitlin and not Charlie.

There’s another driving force in this cultural shift. It’s an effort called “Hockey Education Program,” or HEP.

Hockey program stresses sportsmanship
It’s in place at the youth hockey level — the foundation on which the high school game resides. HEP isn’t in the high schools … yet.

HEP focuses on coach and parent education, on kids’ hockey skills — not just winning and losing — and on sportsmanship. The most controversial of HEP’s components is called “Fair Play Points,” or FPP, which are awarded to teams that, frankly, behave. FPPs can actually determine standings in league play.

Now in its fourth season, HEP has been slowly pushing the state’s 160 youth hockey associations along a path of on-ice and in-the-stands reform. Frankly, Minnesota Hockey, the $1.25 million-a-year operation that oversees the game in the state, has been attempting to clean up its game’s act.  This year, Minnesota Hockey is spending $50,000 on HEP. Three years ago, to get it going, the organization spent $140,000.

After years of the game getting chippier and chippier — of injuries increasing, of coach, referee and player attrition and of wacky parents acting out — Minnesota Hockey, with the aid of Mayo Clinic sports psychologist Aynsley Smith, intervened in 2004. The game, they argued, shouldn’t merely be a feeder system for the pros or a feeder system for motels statewide to accommodate elite, expensive, traveling youth hockey teams.

It’s about learning hockey skills, life skills, having fun, controlling one’s emotions. Novel, eh?

First data show some progress
After three years of HEP, the first rush of data is in. It looks OK. Not great. But OK.



Click on the bar charts to enlarge


For instance, in all of youth hockey, checking from behind was down each season over the past three, for a total reduction of 18 percent. Reducing that sort of action was important, said Dave Margenau, of Maple Grove, the HEP implementation director, because pulling down or tripping a player from behind increases “a great potential of severe injury,” Margenau said.

Also, importantly, game disqualifications of players and parents — while still few — seem to have been cut in half over the three-year span.

“I believe it’s the motivation of Fair Play Points and where you wind up in the standings  that causes players and coaches to be more aware of the consequences of their actions,” Margenau said.

Ah, Fair Play Points. The concept is simple: At each age level, there is a limit on how many penalty minutes are permitted in a game. If a team exceeds that limit — say, 10 total minutes at the youngest age or 14 at older ages — then that team doesn’t get its Fair Play Point for that game. Sort of hockey’s answer to Gold Stars or Brownie Points.

Fair Play Points can alter league standings
Those FPPs are added on to the typical points in standings for victories or ties. For instance, two teams can be tied in their league based on game results. The Jets and Sharks can each have 10 wins and two ties, for 22 points in the standings.

But if the Jets have limited their penalties and their fans have behaved and the Sharks haven’t, the Jets might earn more FPP points … and, on the strength of that level of sportsmanship, jump above the Sharks in the standings.

“We’ve seen instances where a team lost a league championship as a result of it,” said Mark Jorgensen, Minnesota Hockey’s executive director.  “Ultimately, hopefully, as those kids move on, that consequence has an effect on them.”

Still, the just-released data show, Fair Play Points earned, generally, have been declining each year across age groups, boys and girls. That is, while dangerous penalties seem to be down, teams are still being penalized, perhaps for poor fan behavior or bad sportsmanship noted by referees. There are more “tactical” penalties being called, too, because of a tightening of rules. So holding and interference penalties are being whistled more regularly, increasing the number of penalty minutes and decreasing FPPs.



Click on the bar charts to enlarge


In its recent newsletter to its members, Minnesota Hockey called this dip in Fair Play Points “concerning.”

Not all groups embracing parent education efforts

A few other points: So far, parent education isn’t mandatory. Margenau and his committee have been developing educational and discussion tools for parents, but not every association has embraced them.

Said Jorgensen: “I don’t know if we’ve come one mile or 20 miles on this yet. But, if HEP has done nothing else, it’s raised the awareness of everybody surrounding hockey. People notice your behavior. Your behavior has an effect on the game … There are a lot of people who thought the sky was going to fall when we talked about Fair Play Points. But I’ve had a lot of people come back to me and tell me, ‘I was completely wrong.’ ”

Jorgensen says parents and coaches have realized Minnesota Hockey isn’t trying to take the “assertive nature” out of hockey, but, rather, “the over-aggressiveness” of the game, the win at all cost and all expense.

In the end, it’s about understanding that not every kid is an “A” player en route to the NHL. Indeed, most are “B” level en route to normal lives and, ideally, a lifetime of hockey playing, with their buddies and their children, and with a lingering good taste of their youth hockey experience.

Even as the NHL Wild acquired a goon to beef up its game last week, even as the Star Tribune writes a five-part series about a teenager leaving home to seek an illusory puck-of-gold, leaders of the youth game are seeking to get it right and healthy.

When Margenau and Jorgensen were asked if HEP is making Minnesota hockey more “polite,” they were both a bit stunned. Polite isn’t a word they had recently heard in the same sentence with the word hockey.

“How about respectful?” Margenau asked. “Respectful of opponents, respectful of coaches, respectful of officials.”

Better word. Good idea. Good start.

Enjoy the tournament.

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