A Toronto girls hockey league has told coaches they cannot touch players on the bench — not even on their helmets — in a zero-tolerance policy that critics say may be doing more harm than good.
Following a complaint about a congratulations doled out by a volunteer parent, the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association this week sent coaches an email noting restrictions on when men can be in dressing rooms, a ban on social media interactions, and strict rules regarding email communication.
“On bench behaviour – under no circumstances should there be contact with the players, in any way,” reads the email from John Reynolds, who runs the house league. “Putting hands on shoulders, slapping butts, tapping them on the helmet, NOTHING, this can make some of the girls uncomfortable and you won’t know which ones, so no contact, period.”
Dr. Michael Ungar, a Dalhousie University social work professor, said a question of reasonableness has instead become a zero tolerance policy.
“That’s where we actually seem to be doing more disservice to children than helping them,” said Dr. Ungar, author of Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive. “Do we really want a world where children are never touched in a friendly way by a stranger, and therefore can’t distinguish good touches from bad touches?”
A zero tolerance policy, Dr. Ungar argues, “is not keeping children safe, it’s endangering them” because it denies them opportunities for appropriate social development through contact.
Leaside sent out the email following a complaint about an “on bench congratulation that wasn’t deemed appropriate,” said Leaside president Jennifer Smith. It involved a parent volunteer slapping a player’s bum and squeezing a player’s shoulders, said Ms. Smith. It wasn’t considered to be serious, but it was taken seriously nonetheless and addressed with the individual.
“No harm, no foul,” said Ms. Smith. “Just a reminder, hey you can’t do this.’’
Although not explicitly stated in the email, fist bumping or high fives are allowed, Ms. Smith said. ‘‘What we recommend, what Hockey Canada recommends, is you do a fist bump, like a high five, end of story. Not tapping kids on the head, because you tap a kid on the head, even when they’re wearing a helmet, you could conceivably give a kid a concussion,” she said.
Ms. Smith said the organization is following the lead of Hockey Canada, the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association and a widely used training course called Respect in Sport.
Rules regarding how adults and children should interact in minor hockey have laudably tightened up in the wake of the horrific revelations of sexual abuse suffered by former NHL players Sheldon Kennedy and Theoren Fleury at the hands of their junior coach.
But acceptable behaviour regarding bench conduct is not uniform across the country. Hockey Canada says touching should be limited to “safe areas,” and that associations can impose stricter rules, while the OWHA president says its standard on the bench is no physical contact with players (its anti-harassment policy prohibits unwanted or unnecessary physical contact including touching, petting or pinching).
At the predominantly male Ontario Minor Hockey Association, guidelines guard against unwanted behaviour, but a pat on the back or the shin pads is considered acceptable.
Even in Toronto there is variation among girls’ leagues: the Scarborough Sharks have no problem with tapping a player on the helmet after a good shift, while the Etobicoke Dolphins have an unwritten no-contact rule similar to Leaside.
Respect in Sport, meanwhile, encourages “appropriate motivational contact,” said co-founder Wayne McNeil, such as handshakes, high-fives and pats on the back of arms or shoulders in public. A pat on the bum is considered offside, but he considers a tap on the helmet to be a positive show of affection.
Leaside also has a policy forbidding men in dressing rooms after a certain age, unless they are on the coaching staff. In that instance, at least two adults have to be in the room, which is common practice across the province.
“It’s coming from an interest in creating a safe place for kids to play hockey,” Roanne Argyle, the league’s director of communications, said of the no-contact stipulation, which Leaside says stems from the Respect in Sport training course. Mr. McNeil, however, says there is no hard and fast rule.
“Sometimes these things get blown out of proportion, unfortunately,” he said “My rule of thumb would be to stay away from any body part that is perceived sexual, period. That’s the common sense we teach.”
Todd Millar, former president of Hockey Calgary, said: “My instincts tell me, guys, we are starting to get overzealous about monitoring an awful lot of things inside the game of minor hockey,” said Mr. Millar, who penned the book Moron – Behind The Scenes Story Of Minor Hockey.
“Having said that, if that’s where we have to go in order to really reinforce great behaviours among adults, then maybe the pendulum is OK swinging a little too far to the right and letting it drift back to centre.”
Fran Rider, president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, praised Leaside’s diligence. “Probably, you can never be overly protective,” she said.
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