A Winning Equation

Sportsmanship + Respect = A Safer Game
Doug Abrams

There may be no greater display of sportsmanship in all of sports than the handshake line that takes place at the end of a hockey game.There may be no greater display of sportsmanship in all of sports than the handshake line that takes place at the end of a hockey game.


The night was Nov. 3, 1999, and only seconds remained in a junior varsity hockey game between suburban Chicago rivals, New Trier High School and Glenbrook North High School. New Trier was ahead, 7–4, in the teams’ first meeting since Glenbrook North edged them, 3–2, for the Illinois state JV title a season earlier.

In the November rematch, tempers flared from the opening faceoff. Fans shouted insults back and forth as players taunted opponents and took repeated penalties. One coach even walked onto the ice to confront a referee. Glenbrook North’s prime target was New Trier’s sophomore co-captain Neal Goss, whose hat trick decided the game.

Shortly after the final buzzer, a 15-year-old Glenbrook North player skated across the ice, blind-sided Goss, and checked him headfirst into the boards. “That’s what you get for messing,” the player said as Goss lay on the ice, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

Learning Lessons

The Chicago-area JV game teaches an important lesson. Sportsmanship and respect for the rules instill citizenship in players, but that is not all. Games marked by sportsmanship and respect also reduce the risk of injury. If the teams had played hard but clean, Goss would likely have walked out of the rink because sportsmanlike, respectful players trained by responsible adults do not drive opponents’ faces into the boards at the end of a game.

When sportsmanship and respect break down during an overheated game, safety risks should concern every family, even ones whose players rarely sit in the penalty box. The victim lying paralyzed on the Chicago ice could have been any skater because injury can strike randomly when passions overcome civility.

As Crash Davis, the journeyman minor league catcher played by Kevin Costner, said in the award-winning movie, Bull Durham: “You don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem.”

Play hard, play clean, play fair are three elements that would make hockey a safer game for players of all ages and skill levels.Play hard, play clean, play fair are three elements that would make hockey a safer game for players of all ages and skill levels.



Enforcing National Standards

USA Hockey’s march toward improved national safety standards since I first laced on skates nearly 50 years ago has prevented countless injuries, but national safety standards are only the beginning. These standards depend on parents, coaches, officials and players to live up to them. 

National safety standards did not fail Neal Goss. He wore a helmet, cage and other protective equipment that met USA Hockey specifications. No report indicated that the coaches or referees lacked required USA Hockey certification. The opponent’s late hit brought a penalty for checking-from-behind, a USA Hockey rule more protective than professional rules. This young man suffered serious injury because both teams let their emotions get the better of them.

Sports medicine specialists understand how runaway emotions endanger player safety. The “sports safety checklist” of the National Athletic Trainers Association, for example, includes these measures: “Coaches should strictly enforce the sports rules,” and leagues should “develop a sports/parent ‘code of conduct’ and always show good sportsmanship.”

A recent study by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, one of the nation’s most comprehensive pediatric hospitals and research institutes, directly links sportsmanship, respect and safety. The study concerned nine high school sports – boys’ football, soccer, basketball, wrestling and baseball; and girls’ soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball. Researchers estimated that between 2005 and 2007, more than 98,000 injuries in these sports were directly related to an act that a referee or disciplinary committee ruled illegal. Thirty-two percent of these injuries were to the head or face, and 25 percent were concussions.

“Each sport has … rules developed to promote fair competition and protect participants from injury,” the Children’s Hospital researchers concluded.  “Enforcing rules and punishing illegal activity … may reduce injury rates by modifying players’ behavior.”

The Children’s Hospital study sends a powerful wake-up call about injury prevention. ABC News has reported “waves of head-butting, elbowing and fighting … at youth sporting events across the country.” A national summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports found youth sports to be a “hotbed of chaos, violence and mean-spiritedness.”

In a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey, 8.2 percent of youth leaguers – nearly one in 10 – said that adults had pressured them to intentionally harm opponents. Avoidable bruises, cuts, sprains and even concussions can follow.


Better Games

Sportsmanship and respect produce not only greater safety, but also better games. In any sport, the most exciting games involve competitors who try their hardest to win, but who also follow the rules and shake their opponents’ hands at the end. Dirty play does not satisfy most people for very long.

USA Hockey is right that “[f]air play and respect are the backbone of any successful amateur sports program.” The ultimate aim is for “all participants and spectators [to] have respect for all players, coaches, officials, administrators, spectators and the sport of hockey.”

USA Hockey’s Official Playing Rules recognize that sportsmanship, respect and safety depend on all participants:

Players are encouraged to develop a deep sense of respect for all (opponents and officials);
Coaches are responsible for instructing their players to play the sport in a safe and sportsmanlike manner;
Each official should enforce the playing rules fairly and respectfully; and
Spectators are encouraged to support their teams while showing respect for
all players, coaches, officials and other spectators.


“One Word – Respect”

These four USA Hockey guidelines set goals for teams that seek victory in vigorous, safe games. The goals also drive the best professional athletes.
When Chicago Cubs star Ryne Sandberg was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2005, he stated the core value that guided his passion to win during his 16-year big league career. “If … there is a single reason I am here today,” he told the audience, “it is because of one word – respect.”

“I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization. …  I played [the game] right because that’s what you’re supposed to do – play it right and with respect.”
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have put things in proper perspective: “Relax, It’s just a game.” Long after everyone forgets today’s score, youth hockey seeks to leave players with special memories during a lifetime of good health.

Everyone who cringed as Neal Goss left the ice on a stretcher doubtlessly wished that they could have turned back the clock to replay the game right. Rather than leave a lasting nightmare, the game would have ended on a high note if a simple formula had motivated the teams: Sportsmanship + Respect = Safety



USA Hockey; Getty images (2)


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