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Hockey parents taught to play nice off the ice in nationwide programs

Heidi Anderson and her seven-year-old son Connor at the Aitken University Centre in Fredericton, NB.

Stephen MacGillivray/The Globe and Mail

When New Brunswick hockey parents log on to take a mandatory, online behaviour course as the next season starts this fall, they will join upward of 100,000 sports parents across the country obligated to do the same in recent years.

On Tuesday, Hockey New Brunswick announced it will require parents of hockey players aged four to eight to take the hour-long course, which features vignettes, videos, quizzes and doses of sports psychology, before their child can play in the 2013-2014 season. Brian Whitehead, executive director of the N.B. organization, said at least one person from a child's family must take the course, which will be offered free this year but at a cost of $12 next year. The four to eight age bracket was nothing more than a cost consideration, he said, since the provincial body will spend about $30,000 on that group alone.

The move puts the province in line with Nova Scotia and Alberta, where the program first cut its teeth in Calgary in 2010. Since then, hundreds of sports bodies have compelled parents to take the course.

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From hockey to gymnastics to skiing and swimming, associations from coast to coast are buying into the notion that with some basic training, fewer tempers will flare in the stands. The Windsor Minor Hockey Association is slated to announce the requirement after its annual general meeting on April 8, and several other major Ontario hockey organizations are believed to be considering mandating the course.

"It took a while to get off the ground," said Wayne McNeil, who co-created the Respect In Sport parent program with former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy in 2007. "But the ball is rolling down the other side of the hill at this point, thanks to the early trailblazers in Calgary."

A spokesperson for Hockey Calgary said it is too early for scientific results, but anecdotally there have been fewer discipline hearings involving parents. The association has enlisted the help of a Mount Royal University researcher to wade through annual parent surveys, the second of which is due out this Friday.

"Some of the data they got back [from the first survey] was that 80 per cent of parents going into the program were reluctant – 'How dare you make me take this,'" Mr. McNeil said of the Hockey Canada-endorsed course. "But 80 per cent came out saying it was a great program."

The course fits within a separate but related push to calm parents at the sidelines. Soccer, baseball, ringette and hockey associations are increasingly moving toward scoreless games for younger players, in part so parents are less likely to chastise children or each other.

Although several sports have embraced the course requirement, Canada's national game – with its well-documented history of overly involved, sometimes violent parents – is cast as decidedly emotional. As New Brunswick coach Eric Bissonnette, who supports the requirement, put it, "there's something about hockey: you take the nicest people and put them in a rink, and funny things happen."

Canada made international headlines last summer after a B.C. coach tripped a 13-year-old player during post-game handshakes. And Shaun Anderson, a New Brunswick parent who will have to take the course so his seven-year-old son, Connor, can play hockey this fall, said Fredericton is now abuzz with chatter after a goalie's parent apparently leaped over the boards at a recent Bantam game because he didn't like the opposing player's relentless poke-checking. Two other parents stormed the ice, a coach was hit in the mouth and two people were dragged out of the arena on stretchers, Mr. Anderson said.

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For him, the requirement is a welcomed one. "Anything that makes the rink a better place for the kids is a good thing."

The hour-long course is mostly animated and pulls from Abraham Maslow's "humanistic theory of development," which, viewers learn, says children inherently want to please their parents. In the introduction, a young cartoon skier laments her parents' behaviour: "My parents keep yelling at me to go faster, stay down, win! I know it makes them happy and proud, but I just wish I could stop racing and just ski for fun."

Parents: Have you taken or registered for a rinkside behaviour course? Share your story here.

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