NHL

Respect in rinks now mandatory for Ontario hockey parents

Before any Ontario minor hockey player steps onto the ice this season, their parents are required to complete an online Respect in Sport course.

Parents behaving 'worse than they used to,' says one hockey association president

Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy helped launch the Respect in Sport course for minor hockey associations. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

As thousands of children across Ontario prepare for another hockey season, their parents will be receiving some mandatory off-ice training. Before any player steps onto the ice this season, their parents are required to complete an online Respect in Sport course.

The program has already been rolled out in other provinces across Canada as organizations rally to combat bad parental behaviour. This is the first season for it in Ontario.

"Parents are a key component of the sports experience," said Wayne McNeil, co-founder of the Respect Group, the company providing the course. "They are the reason why referees and officials quit. In a lot of cases, they are the reason their own kid either quits or has a bad experience in sports." 

The course costs $12 and lasts about an hour. It covers topics such as using guilt on your child, making "the bigs," losing perspective, achieving balance and avoiding burnout. Each section is supplemented with vignettes illustrating bad behaviour. 

There is also advice from experts reminding parents why all of this is so important.

Larissa Gillanders, a Toronto hockey mom, said the timing of the course is perfect. She, along with many others in the minor hockey community, believe bad parental behaviour is worse than ever.

"There is behaviour at the rink that is just terrible and it needs to be pointed out and policed, but it's not because nobody is in charge," said Gillanders, whose four sons all played or still play hockey. 

Worse than ever

Gillanders is amazed at some of the antics she has witnessed while at the rink.

"It's all about ice time or people's perception of ice time for their kids — a perception of coaches playing favourites leads them to shout things from the stands, to come down and tap on the glass behind the bench, to shout and bang, yell at the refs, who are usually kids," she said.

Jeremy Mandell grew up in Toronto playing hockey at the highest level and has been around the game his whole life. His son is about to begin his second season on the ice. Mandell said rinks have always been littered with parental bad apples. He said the sense of entitlement some parents feel has never changed.

"The less experience the parent has in the sport, the more out of whack they are in terms of their realities and expectations," he said. "They don't appreciate how good elite athletes in that sport are. They are not emphasizing the right things."

Chris Thompson is the president of the North Toronto Hockey Association, one of the largest organizations in the city. He also coaches both of his sons' teams. There's a perception that in an age of social media and public shaming, bad parental behaviour is a thing of the past, Thompson said. He wishes it were the case.

"Honestly, I think people are worse than they used to be," he said. "People feel like it's a lot more acceptable to express their opinions to a wider audience now. It used to be one or two parents were the vocal ones and the rest would be supportive."

McNeil formed the Respect Group with former NHLer and sexual abuse survivor Sheldon Kennedy back in 2010. The company offers a variety of "respect" courses, including ones for coaches, workplaces and schools. Nearly 300,000 parents have taken the Respect in Sport course. McNeil acknowledges a lot of the course is common sense for many parents, especially those who have played the game for years.

"You may already be on the top of the heap. You may already be a responsible parent. This was not to insult you but to build an environment," he said.

Common sense

The Greater Toronto Hockey League, with nearly 37,000 players, is the country's biggest. Executive director Scott Oakman said the mandatory course is crucial to fixing the problem. Bad behaviour, he said, is usually caught on tape for everybody to see.

"Part of it is more social media, more video in rinks. We are seeing more first-hand evidence of parental behaviour," Oakman said. "I'm not sure it's any worse than it was 20 years ago. That being said, some of the behaviour is not acceptable."

So far, it seems even hardened hockey parents are finding something valuable in the course.  

"A lot of influential people who have been around the game for years have told me, 'I wish this would have existed when my kids played because I would have been a better sport parent,'" Oakman said. "There is something for everybody, no matter how great a parent you might be."

A major theme of the tutorial is parents should feel empowered confronting bad behaviour at the rink.

"If everybody in the arena is on the same page, there is strength in numbers and a parent can act and not feel like they are stepping out and taking a chance talking to another parent," McNeil said. 

It's a suggestion Gillanders and others say is not always easy.

"People like that are in a certain headspace and aren't going to listen to reason; it's very hard to de-escalate things. When these things happen around me, I try and just put my head down and look the other way even though you want to call them out," Gillanders said.  

"The odd time I do, it doesn't end well because people think they are doing the right thing."

Gillanders said the video made her think twice about her approach to the game.

"I felt a little uncomfortable because I have been guilty of some things," she said. "It hit kind of close to home. Making your kid go to a practice he doesn't want to go to, driving them too hard...maybe he didn't want to get up early. I had a couple of uncomfortable moments."

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