Minnesota kids play hockey more skillfully and respectfully than ever, yet rough stuff still exists on the ice

a group of kids play hockey
Players on the Minneapolis, white and black uniforms, and Orono, red uniforms, teams compete in a 10-and-under youth hockey game Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.
Abbie Parr | AP

Tension is smoldering between each scrap for the puck and Blayke Nelson can often predict the spark 30 seconds ahead of time as he skates from corner to corner, his eyes fixed on the action and his whistle clenched between his teeth.

“A kid will get tripped up, think it's a penalty, and you can see the anger in his face, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is not going to end well,’” said Nelson, who officiates high school and youth games in Minnesota.

Developmental advancements and safety enhancements mirroring NHL trends have, by all accounts, made hockey as skillful and respectful as ever at the younger levels of the game. Fighting is a definite no-no — it means an ejection for players through high school across North America and even in the elite junior leagues — where fighting is simply penalized, as it is in the NHL — the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League surprised some observers this season by adding automatic suspensions for fight instigators and “aggressors."

This is still a contact sport, though. Even if dropping the gloves is taboo for tweens and teens, boys frequently take a stand-your-ground attitude to the ice and stage a rare fight.

“The way you compete is different from a lot of other sports. It’s more aggressive, and I feel like you kind of hate the other team a little more,” said Finn Shepherd, a goalie at the 14-and-under level in St. Louis Park. “I think part of it is there’s no one beside the refs. Coaches can’t come onto the ice. The parents can’t jump over the boards. Players have helmets on, so they kind of feel hidden in a way. You’re under all that gear, and you think you can get away with it.”

Cheap shots on the goalie are quick ways to put a team in retaliation mode.

“There’s got to be a little bit of pushback, like, ‘Hey man, that’s not allowed,’" said Joe Dziedzic, the head coach of the Minneapolis varsity team combined from the city’s public high schools and a former NHL player. “We don’t want them taking penalties, but sometimes you’ve got to win the battle to get the war done. You’ve got to establish that this is something we’re taking pride in.”

Sometimes, a scrum breaks out. Shoving and shouting leads to a headlock or a stray punch. Every once in a while, the benches might even clear.

“It definitely is there. The kids are also aware that they can’t fight, or they’ll get kicked out,” said Nelson, whose older brother, Brock Nelson, is an 11-year veteran center for the NHL’s New York Islanders.

USA Hockey’s Rule 615 for amateur competition defines fighting as “a punch, or an attempted punch, thrown by any player in the direction of an opponent, regardless as to whether contact is made.” It’s a major penalty for the team plus an automatic ejection for the offending player. Taking off a helmet for a fight is a two-game suspension.

“I wish we could fight. I think it would be pretty cool. But it’s probably too dangerous for us right now,” said Maverick Knoke, a junior defenseman on the Minneapolis high school team. “It’s kind of a way for the players to police the game themselves.”

That’s what the referees are paid for, of course. While a wide range of opinion exists along the age ladder about how much latitude players should have for sticking up for their side — and how much body contact should be allowed in general — there’s no doubt the officials set the tone.

“Do you want two teams battling hard and being physical? Yes, but you’ve always got to make sure player safety is fair, consistent and in your hands,” said Erik Martinson, another high school referee in Minnesota. “We are coached and taught to find the differential a lot of times, which means if there’s three guys involved, don’t just match up penalties, find the perpetrator and make sure that team goes down.”

Derek Boogaard, the late NHL enforcer, once served as a summer camp instructor in Saskatchewan that taught teens effective fighting techniques for once they reached juniors or the pros. The sport is in a decidedly different place now.

“Some people say the physical game isn’t what it used to be and there’s a detriment to it, even to the point kids don’t know how to play physically because we’re not teaching it enough," said Colin Mueller, a squirt and peewee coach in Minneapolis. “There’s some truth to that, but there’s a tactic of why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it that wasn’t there before. Before it was just, “Go put a body on them.'”

Boogaard died at the age of 28 in 2011 of an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers after deep struggles with the effects of concussions. Coincidentally, that same year, Jack Jablonski, a high school sophomore in Minnesota, was paralyzed by an inadvertent check from behind into the boards, a chilling moment that triggered several safety enhancements.

Another seismic change occurred in 2011 when USA Hockey delayed the age at which body checking is first allowed, from the 12-and-under level (commonly called peewee) to 14-and-under (known as bantam).

“When the move was proposed, of every 10 emails we got, nine of them were absolutely telling us we were the dumbest hockey people on earth,” USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey development Bob Mancini said. “Since the rule was enacted, we never hear a word about it.”

There’s a stronger emphasis now on the skills of stick-on-puck play, gaining body position on opponents and angling, which is the art of taking away space from the other team.

“We always were intent on making the game more physical but less violent,” Mancini said.

Peewees can still practice checking. The goal is to get them ready for bantam competition by focusing on the other skills before introducing full body contact in games. But there are no more fighting clinics for kids, not officially anyway.

“I coach my kids, ‘Hey, being physical and hitting, that’s an important part of the game now that we can do that, but I’m not telling you guys to go up there with the intent of blowing kids up,” said John McCoy, who coaches his son's bantam team in St. Louis Park. “If you hurt someone, you are going to feel terrible.”