The Greater Toronto Hockey League does not play the same brand of hockey found at the professional level.
And it’s not just the talent level that necessarily separates them.
The GTHL is a not-for-profit minor hockey program for Toronto area youths from nine to 21, ranging from house league level all the way to Triple A. It needs to maintain the safety of its participants.
It is a league that does not endorse either fighting or the devastating hits, that kind that often decorate the highlights of many NHL games.
According to Peter Kourtis, manager of hockey operations for the GTHL, this variance in culture is what makes the game at the youth level different from those found within the professional ranks.
“Pro hockey is entertainment,” said Kourtis from the league office in Toronto. “And they use intimidation to try and win hockey games.
“At the youth level, the game is supposed to be played without intimidation. And it’s not just the intimidation of a fight, but it’s the intimidation of dirty hits or very physical hits.”
The potential for concussions within hockey has increasingly become of great public concern in recent years, especially at the youth level in Canada. And as a league that allows kids to legally body check an opponent from the age of 11, the GTHL has also found itself in a position where it had to limit the potential physical dangers that a child could face when playing the sport.
Fighting, checking from behind and head contact, whether intentional or otherwise, were identified as being among the most violent plays minor hockey struggled to eliminate from the game at all levels.
“In the old days, the suspensions [for dangerous hits or fights] were kind of small,” said Kourtis. “You can have a fight in the first period or second period and then come back in the next game.
“And now, that’s all changed.”
John R. Gardner, the president of the GTHL, also acknowledged how times have changed and that the definition of fisticuffs in the sport and the issues surrounding it have increasingly become very complicated.
But he also accepted that fighting and dangerous plays are not welcomed in the GTHL.
“The best way to get at it [to discourage fighting] was to deal with the players,” said Gardner. “So they’re the ones that pay the price.”
With the cooperation of Hockey Canada, the GTHL has made some significant moves in recent years to increase the punishment for fighting and aggressive hits. The length of their respective suspensions have been prolonged, in addition to the league instituting a system in which repeat offenders would find the penalties for committing these gross misconducts would escalate.
“I think the problem was we were having behaviour repeated by maybe the same players and that’s why the escalation went into place,” explained Kourtis.
As a result, when an individual fights in the third game of a season and again in the 10th game of a season, they will face a harsher suspension following the second fight. A third fight or dirty hit in a season can see a player facing an indefinite suspension.
Depending on what is later discussed in a scheduled hearing with the administrators of the GTHL to evaluate the incident, the behaviour also puts the players at risk of being taken out of the season entirely.
“It becomes an education for them,” said Gardner, who has presided over a number of hearings involving the suspension of a player for a dangerous play.
“It’s more or less a matter of just one-on-one explaining to them why they shouldn’t get involved, assigning them the responsibility of passing this message on to the team, so it’s an ongoing educational process.
“I always warn kids if they ever come into a special committee hearing and their fathers are usually there, and I say, ‘look, your father is paying a fair amount of money for you to be able to play hockey. What do you think it’s doing to him when he realizes that you can’t play?'”
The speed and the physicality ingrained within the culture of hockey has made the limiting of dangerous and aggressive contact a challenge at all levels of hockey, not just youth. But with a mission statement that includes promoting the development of good character, citizenship and sportsmanship through the game, it is something that is imperative for the betterment of the sport.
Gardner pointed out that things are improving, that the number of fights and suspensions have significantly dropped this year in the GTHL.
Intimidation may sell hockey to the masses at the professional levels, but in a league where fun is just as important as the development of one’s skills, it is not considered a necessary part of the game.
“Our league has decided that you’re not going to be able to intimidate your opponent with dirty or reckless play,” said Kourtis. “You have got to win with skill.”