For junior hockey coach Monty Robbins, the wake-up call occurred during a tournament in Michigan last October. His Markham Islanders were facing a team from Toledo, Ohio, that specialized in "very late hits, elbows up high, all to the head. It was probably the worst I've come across."
After one of his players was injured and taken to hospital, Mr. Robbins pulled his team from the tournament before it had to play the Toledo team again.
That was one of the catalysts that led the veteran coach to break ranks with the prestigious Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) and join the Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League (TNCHL), which will be expanding from three teams to eight in two age groups next season.
The league is part of a growing movement across the country to create a parallel non-contact stream that permits young players to continue playing hockey, at a stage where the dropout rate - early teens - tends to be fairly high.
After tryouts earlier this month, organizers decided to run another session in May in response to a spike in demand for places in the league - proof, the organizers say, that their brand of minor-league hockey is here to stay.
Founded last year by a group of downtown parents in response to mounting concerns about head injuries among pre-teens and teens playing in select leagues that allow bodychecking, the TNCHL - and several other fledgling leagues in Southern Ontario - are challenging Canada's dominant hockey culture and its emphasis on toughness.
Hockey Canada doesn't recognize the new league but says it is not opposed to it. Under Hockey Canada's constitution, it is linked to leagues and associations throughout the country through its provincial and regional affiliations like the GTHL. Until the TNCHL and the GTHL forge an association, Hockey Canada officials say they cannot recognize the league.
One of the contentious issues between the GTHL and the non-contact league, those with knowledge of the situation say, is ice time. That is a precious commodity and the GTHL, one source said, is not eager to hand over blocks of ice time to a new league.
However, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said Sunday night that he hopes the way can be paved for the TNCHL to step under his group's umbrella.
"Hockey Canada is looking at all ways to get these groups involved through our branches," he said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Robbins says he's sick of the "goonery" in minor league hockey. "People ask me why I'm leaving and I say, 'It's just not necessary.' "
In Calgary, the Recreational Hockey League of Calgary will celebrate its 10th season in the fall of 2010-11. It has four different age groups, including one for 17 to 20-year-olds. Usually, minor hockey ends for most children after their second year of midget, or when they turn 16. Many pursue the non-contact path because the time commitment is not so great, and permits them to participate in school sports as well.
Leslie Warner has been co-ordinator of the midget division for the past three years. Her oldest son Evan plays in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for the Drumheller Dragons, but her younger son, Brendan, had dropped out of hockey at 13.
"He took himself out of it," said Ms. Warner, "largely because it was too much of a time commitment - too serious, too many practices per week, plus additional fitness commitments and off-ice training.
"In Calgary, you could even sign up to play with a friend, which was very appealing to him. That helped ease him back in the game. He left for a year and wanted to get back and because that alternative existed, that brought him back."
In some cases, the players in the new league have suffered concussions and simply can no longer play contact hockey. But while the league gives the parents of talented players a less aggressive alternative to the costly and competitive GTHL, many kids still face a certain stigma in the schoolyard about joining. With others, there's the fear factor associated with rough play.
The TNCHL is not the pioneering league in the non-contact movement. Over the past decade, other clubs have sprung up for similar reasons, and now serve thousands of kids in Barrie, London and Burlington. Mostly operating as businesses, they offer house-league-level hockey but have also begun establishing select try-out teams.
Peter Cardo, a former teacher who owns the Barrie Knights league, says his group will be working with the TNCHL organizers to run more tournaments and inter-league matches so the players face a broader range of competitors.
As these leagues continue to gain a greater following, they'll also be attracting more coaches with the kind of experience Mr. Robbins brings.
In the non-contact league next year in Toronto, Mr. Robbins intends to stress passing, shooting and play-making, and expects to get less flack from hyper-aggressive parents. "There's no question the kids will become more skilled players without the contact."
Special to The Globe and Mail
With reports from Eric Duhatschek and David Shoalts