Perry Cavanagh knows there are some minor hockey parents who can't be saved, like the 55-year-old father with the short fuse who, when told by Hockey Calgary officials he should think about taking an anger management course, slammed his fist on a table and shouted, "I've taken the damn thing twice and they don't work."
Still, it was Cavanagh's push to weed out the game's misbehaving parents that led to Hockey Calgary's adopting the Respect In Sports initiative, the first compulsory program of its kind in Canada for parents of minor hockey players. In order for their son or daughter to play hockey this season, parents must participate in an hour-long, online presentation that deals with respecting referees, parents living vicariously through their kids and parents physically or verbally abusing opposing players or even their own.
The deadline for compliance was midnight last Friday. By Tuesday, 11,190 hockey players had at least one parent who had completed the program, while there were still 230 families whose children were being told they could not practise or play. Cavanagh, the president of Hockey Calgary, said a number of those cases involved communication issues, such as Junior B players living away from home who still needed their parents to sign off.
Other cases have brought back memories of the 55-year-old dad who couldn't keep his cool in or out of the arena.
"Have I had calls from people saying they weren't going to take the program? Yes, in words I won't repeat," Cavanagh said. "It's a small number and we don't have a goal to change that 1 per cent. Our goal is not to tolerate them any more. [The RIS program]is not a panacea, but it is a first step to change a societal trend that goes against the values we feel are important."
Hockey Calgary began noticing the growing problem of parental behaviour during its in-season Thursday night hearings. Usually, the complaints would come from players who didn't like their coach or felt they weren't getting enough ice time. But soon the parents began outnumbering the kids and the issues grew more intense.
Not long after, Hockey Calgary was approached by former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who set out years ago to make the game safer for kids after he was sexually abused by his coach, Graham James. Kennedy and business partner Wayne McNeil had taken RIS to Sport Manitoba four years ago, where it was viewed by more than 30,000 coaches in a variety of sports.
When told they should put an instructional presentation together for parents, Kennedy and McNeil did with the approval of Hockey Canada. It was just three years ago that Hockey Canada launched its own Relax, It's Just A Game campaign aimed at getting parents to lighten up on their kids. The Kennedy-McNeil program proved a positive follow.
"We have to continue the education," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson explained. "Every year we've got a lot of new volunteers, a lot of new kids coming into the game. This is a program worth the effort."
Cavanagh said Calgary hockey parents were given more than a year's notice about having to take the RIS program. He added hockey officials from across the province and the country, as well as officials in other sports such as basketball and soccer, have taken notice and called to ask questions. Already, the major-junior Canadian Hockey League plans to use a similar program next season.
"We're implementing our coaches' program in the CHL [how to handle players, parents, referees]and for the billets in the system," McNeil said. "We're also implementing our parents' program for the billet parents. … It's about making things safe."
Kennedy scoffed at those parents who have complained their kids are being punished by Hockey Calgary's stance.
"The reality is we're not punishing Johnny. If you want to sign him up, this is your responsibility," Kennedy said. "In the last four, five years there's been a shift. The people we started to reach out to in 1997 are now parents and they expect this to be in place. They've grown up with it. Some are saying if we don't have [education programs]in place, 'We're not signing up.'"
Carolyn Forrest said her hope, as president of Calgary's Lake Bonavista Hockey Association, was that the RIS program would convince the majority of respectful parents not to tolerate abusive language or actions from their peers.
"I've had dads calling an opposing player a [obscenity]while I'm standing next to them taping the game," Forrest said. "[RIS]empowers that 99 per cent of the good parents to tell the 1 per cent, 'Calm down, go for a coffee. It's just a game.'"