Hockey on trial as coach appeals suspension for throwing game

A former minor hockey coach will appeal his suspension today for throwing a game in a calculated bid to improve his team's playoff prospects.

But people who love the game say it's hockey, and what it has become, that will be on trial.

"Sportsmanship has almost become a joke now," said retired professor John Meagher, founder of the University of New Brunswick's physical education school.

Scott Farrell, former head coach of the Moncton AAA Midget Flyers, is fighting a two-year suspension from the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association for what has been described as "coaching to lose."

Farrell shook up the minor hockey world earlier this year when he sized up competition at the Atlantic Canada midget championship in St. John's, Nfld., and decided his team would be better off losing to a team from Pictou, N.S.

Fans and players were stunned as he pulled the Flyers' goalie and allowed his team to get hammered 22-1.

But thanks to a complex goal-ratio system, the loss actually gave the Flyers a better shot at a berth in the championship final.

The plan backfired when Moncton, taunted and booed by irate fans, subsequently lost 11-4 to a Newfoundland team.

"We did what we had to do to get into the championship game," Farrell said, defending his controversial decision.

Farrell later apologized and resigned as head coach. The hockey association suspended his coaching privileges for two years, saying he had violated the code of conduct.

But the fallout continues as people involved in hockey, from moms and dads to coaches and officials, wonder what has happened to Canada's great national game.

It's not just Farrell's win-at-all costs decision that has shaken fans, but also developments as recent as last week when people were appalled by the conduct of the Barrie Colts at the Memorial Cup in Halifax.

The Ontario champion Colts, defeated by the Rimouski Oceanic for the title of Canada's best junior hockey team, had a tumultuous season that included fines, suspensions from the Canadian Hockey League, an assault charge and three sexual assault charges.

The bad behaviour continued on and off the ice in Halifax.

Colts' captain Sheldon Keefe refused to shake hands with CHL president David Branch, while Colts' player Mike Jefferson belittled the abilities of Oceanic's top scorer, Brad Richards, then refused to shake hands when Richards was named tournament MVP.

Even coach Bill Stewart snuck out of the rink without speaking to the media after losing the championship game.

"Hockey is one of those things that teaches life-long skills and, in life, you're not always going to win," said Tim Cain, president of the Fredericton Youth Hockey Association.

"You have to be gracious in winning and gracious in losing."

The New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association will consider Farrell's appeal of his suspension at a hearing tonight in Sussex, N.B. It's expected the association's decision will be released on Thursday.

But people like Meagher have already passed judgment.

He said hockey is being destroyed by the drive to make it entertainment.

"Hockey, at the highest level, has willingly and definitively moved into the entertainment business and everybody below is trying to copy them," he said.

"In order to be entertaining, you've got to be a winner, and in order to be a winner you've got to make the kid with the broken ankle run after the tennis ball. That's what they're doing."

Meagher says it appears Farrell got caught up in that mentality and considers him a victim of the system.

Cain said efforts are under way to restore hockey to a fun, competitive, invigorating sport. But he said it's a fight, with parents as some of the biggest culprits.

"I don't know whether they're trying to live an unfulfilled dream through their child, but they're pushing and pushing and pushing," he said, adding that some expectations exceed their child's skill level.

"They put these pressures on coaches and a lot of them are saying win at all costs . . . but winning at all costs shouldn't be in minor hockey."