Despite the prorogation of Parliament, politics in Canada hasn’t exactly ground to a halt, and earlier this week violence in sport became a popular issue thanks to a proposal by the New Democratic Party. In a press release, the NDP called on the government to establish a Royal Commission on violence in sports. The only specific incident mentioned in the NDP release was the Patrice Cormier hit on Mikael Tam, a hit they say demands action, and while the Commission would look into all sports it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to know that hockey would be at the forefront of the debate.
The NDP critic for sport is Glenn Thibeault, who along with NDP Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair introduced the NDP proposal to the media. Thibeault is no stranger to the sport, and he’s served as both a referee and coach of youth hockey and lacrosse. I reached him by phone Wednesday afternoon.
I asked Thibeault what kind of recommendations he would expect from a Royal Commission.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to prejudge what this commission would come up with in terms of recommendations. I think the important thing is that we ensure Hockey Canada is there, Football Canada, Baseball, that all sports that have a tendency towards violence get involved. We also want to include the health professionals, the health side of this. I had one hockey mom come and talk to me in my office and she said ‘My son no longer plays hockey because last year we went to four tournaments and at the four tournaments we made four trips to the emergency room, all due to cheap shots.’ We want all aspects, and included in that is law enforcement. If you and I were playing tennis, and I didn’t like a shot that you put by me, and I jumped the net and struck you with my racket, I would be charged with assault, no questions asked. But when someone laces on some skates and they do a two-hander, like [Marty] McSorley did to [Donald] Brashear a few years back, or even the elbow that just happened recently, that comes up with a game or two suspension. Where do we draw the line? What is actually two people consenting to engage in fisticuffs, compared to assault on another human being.
Should charges have been laid on Patrice Cormier for his hit on Mikael Tam?
That’s one of the things that I think this commission needs to look into – where do we draw the line? I don’t think we need to sit around on this any longer, until someone gets killed. We’ve already had some unfortunate incidents where we saw fighting, or that incident last year involving a player in, I believe the Jr. B ranks in Ontario. We don’t want to see any more violence, because in the junior level of hockey in Canada, and the professional sporting levels, everyone who plays sports watches these games, and they like to imitate their heroes. Unfortunately, when you see six or seven year olds now using their sticks as an axe on the ice, that’s not anything that anyone wants to see. If we can quell it and stop the violence at a younger age it won’t be an issue.
Is this an issue that you feel is trickling down from the professional leagues to the minor and junior leagues?
It’s trickling down. For the sake of our youth, that’s why we need to have this Royal Commission. It’s not for the government to get in and start regulating and legislating what our sports should be; that’s not what this Royal Commission is about. The Royal Commission would be an opportunity for all aspects of sport to get involved and come up with solutions, because we need to start taking the steps somewhere. We can’t just say ‘the status quo is fine,’ because the status quo is seeing an increase in head shots and an increase in violence. We need to stop this and turn it around, and engage our youth in more sports so we can address the things like obesity, so that kids are actually playing team sports, rather than playing team sports on their video games.
What about people who refer to the Bobby Clarke slash on Valeri Kharlamov or the Maurice Richard slash to Hal Laycoe, and say this has always been a part of the game?
It has been a part of the game, but that doesn’t make it right. What we’re seeing is less and less kids signing up to play hockey, and less kids being involved in sport. What we need to do is address it, to make sure that police know that if someone’s using a two-hander, there’s going to be an assault charge. We don’t want to criminalize the game, and this isn’t about all of a sudden saying that if you do something, you’ll automatically be charged. If you’re standing tow-to-toe with some guy and you both drop your gloves, you know what you’re getting into. Fighting is part of the game; they’ve got a penalty for it. But the elbow to the head where you’re knocking out someone’s teeth, putting them into a concussion and you see them convulsing on the ice, we need to try and quell that. I don’t think that’s ever been a part of any game.
In response to the Cormier incident the QMJHL suspended him for the remained of the year, and last year the OHL suspended Michael Liambis for a full year. Do you feel those suspensions aren’t getting the message through?
It’s one of those things where the leagues are doing what they think they can to the best of their abilities. But if you know that if you’re going to assault someone with a stick, that you’re going to be charged just like everybody else, that you’re not above the law, that you don’t have a free licence to go around whacking everyone violently with your stick across the head or wherever it is. Then you may think twice, and unfortunately right now there seems to be a perception that because you’re in a hockey rink or a football field that you don’t have to worry about the laws, and that’s not true. I think that’s one of the important aspects of the Royal Commission, is to draw those conclusions as to when do law enforcement get involved, how much do we spend on health care. Reg Fleming’s a perfect example with the CTE, as a tough guy in the league he had the same effects to his brain as a boxer. There’s these things that a Royal Commission would allow us to look at for the betterment of all sport in Canada.
Is it fair to describe it as a fact-finding mission, to find what the government and leagues should and can do?
I think it’s an opportunity. If Hockey Canada and these organizations show up, that means they’re determined to be part of the solution. I praise Bob Nicholson and Hockey Canada; they’re already talking about holding a summit on the increase in head-checks. That’s fantastic. Why can’t they bring that forward to this Royal Commission and give us that information, so we’re not so siloed? Football Canada, Baseball Canada, they may have some of these issues as well. Equipment is new – we’ve got Kevlar. That stuff can stop a bullet, but we’re skating around on the ice with it. Also, social trends. Sport is part of the fabric of Canada, but at the same time we have different families now, and different family values. How does that impact sport? If a child is seeing domestic violence and playing hockey are they acting what they see at home. All of these things need to be discussed so we can try to eliminate violence from the game.
What kind of reaction have you had from the other parties? Do you expect them to support this proposal?
We haven’t received a final response yet from the Minister of Sport; we’ll be following up with him. A few days back we heard from [Finance] Minister [Jim] Flaherty, who was a college hockey player (Flaherty went to Princeton on a hockey scholarship) and of course Ken Dryden, a Liberal MP, and both of them said that they don’t believe it’s government’s role to get involved in sport, and I agree. The Royal Commission isn’t doing that. But what they did both say was that ‘enough is enough’ with the headshots and the violence. We also heard newly appointed [Conservative] Senator Jacques Demers talk about how the Cormier incident needs to be addressed from the government. What that means, I don’t know. I’m hoping for some support on this, because it’s not about what party I belong to, it’s about fixing the escalation in violence that we’re seeing in sport for the betterment of all Canadians. I have a six year old daughter and a two year old daughter, and I worry if I take them to a junior hockey game what we’re going to see sometimes, and how I’m going to explain that. Hockey’s a fantastic game, I love it. You can’t tell me that there’s no intensity when you see the Canadian woman’s team against the American woman’s team. That’s an intense hockey game; they’re cutting off the ice. There’s no body contact, but they know how to take someone out when they’re cutting off the ice. It’s a great game to watch, same as at the men’s Olympic level and in the NHL. But these incidents we see more and more of, and which are kids are now acting on the ice or on the soccer pitch, or whatever they’re playing, and that’s what I’m hoping all parties can agree to, that this Royal Commission will give us an opportunity to have binding recommendations for the groups that are participating to ensure that we can eliminate gratuitous violence in all of our sports.