Is hockey getting "soft"?
Some would say softer than their pillows, others may claim that the sport is changing, and thus, something that was once tough-as-nails is starting to become a little squishy.
It’s hard to make a claim as general as that one when it comes to sports, and yet I meet other officials all the time who spout this phrase out like they’ve been paid to do so. "Hockey’s so soft these days." "When I used to play…" "I grew up playing with hitting all the time." "These kids would get their asses handed to them if they went to [location where hockey is apparently not soft]."
With the abundance of new rules making penalties more severe for bad hits, and with removing hitting from the peewee level, it has come to the attention of many people that hockey is changing. It’s no longer just about trying to hit someone else as hard as you possibly can, and getting your brains beat in. Teams that play a strictly physical game are becoming outdated. Physicality is important, yes, but I think that we’ve come to a time where other things are more important. Speed, creativity, trying to open up the ice…teams that try to hit and grind their way to a win are finding themselves struggling a bit.
Of course, I only started playing hockey seven years ago, and with the exception of one year on my high school team, I have always played in a non-checking league, whether it was men’s league or on a girl’s team. For me as a player, it’s hard to say if hockey’s getting soft, because I’ve never really had to play in the type of game where hitting was a big factor. But when I became an official, it’s come to my attention what older men tend to think of the way hockey is changing.
One moment that sticks in my mind particularly is when I had several Bantam Minor games at a tournament in Princeton. There were teams from all over the country, and the one in the game I was reffing was from Tampa Bay. If I remember correctly, they won (close game, not a blowout), and when the game ended, every single player on that team came up and shook my hand and said "good game." I was blown away by this act. Coaches (almost) always shake my hand after the game, but only the occasional player would do so (especially in youth games). I went into the locker room thinking "wow, that was really nice and respectful." My partner, on the other hand, did not agree. He wouldn’t shake hands with any of the kids (he bumped fists instead), and in the locker room, he went on about the handshake thing, saying that it was just silly and these kids were so soft and they’d get killed playing anywhere else.
I was honestly surprised by his reaction. To me, when a kid comes up and shakes my hand, it’s either really adorable because they’re nine years old, or just respectful when they’re older. And maybe this is because I’m generally younger than everyone I work with, sometimes by 10 or 20 years, but the way I see it, hockey isn’t necessarily becoming soft, it’s just placing less of an emphasis on hard hitting, and more on skill and speed.
This is something I’ve started to notice only this year, as I’ve done more and more Bantam games. In the lower levels, like Tier 2 B and sometimes A, and in house leagues, the hitting is bad. The kids aren’t properly taught how to hit, and there, I can see why people argue that hockey is no longer the same. Sometimes, kids get hit and don’t get back up, and not necessarily because it was an illegal check. It’s all new to them. But then occasionally I’ll get a Bantam Tier 1 game, and I’m impressed at how these kids can skate and pass the puck and hit when necessary. But that’s just me. Something that I find impressive is something that an older official will scoff at, saying that the game was boring and terrible.
Maybe if I had played hockey my entire life, I would have a different opinion, but I started late compared to most people, and so I’m awed by kids who are 12 and playing on peewee AAA teams, because by the time they’re my age, they’ll be at a skill level I can only wonder about. Then again, maybe if I went to Boston or Minnesota or Canada, where people tend to go if they want to get somewhere with this sport, I might come back and look at these kids in New Jersey and think "wow, are you guys ever outclassed."
So is hockey getting soft?
The answer to this question, if you can find a definitive one, depends on who you’re talking to. For people like me, and kids that are growing up playing now, you probably won’t find such a harsh opinion on the soft or hard quality of hockey. But with older men, you’ll probably find them going on about how hockey is soft because when they played all they ever did was crush players into the boards, and probably did it without wearing helmets too.
You know how in the NHL, when the goalie falls on top of the puck just as you think it’s about to cross the goal line and you’re pretty sure it fully crossed but you can’t actually tell, and so it’s ruled inconclusive? That’s what we have here. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions on this one.