Sask. hockey team plays clean, and cleans up in league play

A rural Saskatchewan hockey team has finished its season with no trips to the penalty box for fighting, and in first place — a rare combination at that level of play.

Fort Qu'Appelle Falcons did not fight all season long

A rural Saskatchewan hockey team has finished its season with no trips to the penalty box for fighting, and in first place — a rare combination at that level of play.

The Fort Qu'Appelle Falcons, a midget-level team made up of 16- and 17-year-olds, completed their 20-game 2008-2009 schedule with no major infractions.

"They're taught to play by the game," Murray Holzapfel, the team's coach, told CBC News in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "If somebody does something cheap to you, just take it."

Brian MacLean, president of the Prairie-based Major Hockey League, presents a plaque to members of the Fort Qu'Appelle Falcons midget team in recognition of their infraction-free season. The players are, from left, Max Cheers, Joshua Johns and Jordan Johns. ((Nadene Williams))

Holzapfel said the clean approach turned out to be a winning strategy. The Falcons' record was 16-2-2, putting them into the provincial playoffs, which began on Monday.

Notable on the league scoresheet was the number of infractions assessed — or in the Falcons' case, the absence of any infractions. While the Falcons had zero, the second-place Yorkton Redline Terriers racked up 19 league infractions for fighting, hits from behind and other serious penalties.

Part of Holzapfel's strategy was to capitalize on opponent's misdemeanours.

"We have a good power-play," Holzapfel noted. "So I said, 'Let them get the penalties and we'll usually score.' "

While his players were occasionally sent to the penalty box for a trip or high stick, those minor penalties were few and far between, Holzapfel said.

Falcons captain Max Cheers credited coach Holzapfel for the winning strategy, noting that players were told they would be benched for fighting.

Cheers said it became apparent early on that avoiding penalties — and capitilizing on infractions by opponents — would pay dividends.

He said it was tempting, at times, to drop the gloves, but they resisted.

"You might want to," Cheers said. "But you just feel better when you beat the team because they gave you a power play when the other guy dropped his gloves and you didn't do anything and you score on the power-play and win the game."

Undaunted by name-calling

Cheers said the team was not distracted by the taunts of other clubs.

"Some teams have been calling us the biggest pussies in the league," Cheers said. "But it's like, 'Well, we beat all you guys.' "

The Falcons' clean style of play rubbed off on other squads, according to Holzapfel.

"The other team knows that we're a clean team and they have to play clean, too, to keep up with us," he said. "So it brings out better play in the other team, because they know that we're a clean team, so they play clean just to keep up with us."

Holzapfel, who is a cousin of Riley Holzapfel, a centre drafted by the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers, said professional hockey could do without fighting.

"I don't see why it should even be condoned. You don't need the fighting and the hits from behind to play hockey," he said.

Cheers's mother, Kate Hersberger, said she felt proud watching her son play the way he did.

"It was great. They played hockey," Hersberger told CBC News. "They didn't play the Don Cherry version of the game that so many people think is important."

League president awards plaque

The Falcons' accomplishment was noted by the league, in the form of a special plaque presented by Brian MacLean, president of the Prairie-based Major Hockey League.

"It's a real feather in their hat," MacLean told CBC News on Wednesday. "It just goes to show that the game can be played as the game should be played. You don't need that edge on your shoulder."