The most recent issue of The Sporting News had a great 8-page spread titled “30 Reasons Why Hockey Matters to Canada.” In it, they wax nostalgic about the country’s hockey gold medals, the passion the nation has for the game, and the stories and characters that have intertwined with the country’s history for the last 100 years. The overall theme of the article is that hockey fever exists in the DNA of every Canadian citizen, from Moose Jaw to Montreal.
Well, we’re finding out that that’s not exactly true.
Because once again, a Canadian citizen has made an effort to shut down street hockey in front of their little parcel of Canadian earth. Only two months after a Montreal-area father protested a $75 fine when his children were banned from playing street puck, an Enfield, Nova Scotia, family is battling the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (and an anonymous tipster) over an order to halt a recurring street hockey game in front of their house.
Media outlets in our northern neighbor have been all over the story, with nearly all of them siding with the family. And for good reason: in a day and age where kids are more likely to pick up a video game controller than a wiffle ball bat, it’s refreshing to hear stories of kids exercising and playing and laughing in the fresh air, improvising rules and allowing creativity and exertion to dominate over common youthful traits of lethargy and laziness. But it seems there are some old curmudgeons who insist putting a stop to this, intent on seeing these children back into their houses where they can sit idly in front of whatever DVD mom happens to bring home from the supermarket.
But while it’s easy to blame these incidents on miserly, fun-killing neighbors, surely there is data that backs them up and speaks to the dangers of street hockey, right? There must be entire volumes of player and spectator injury reports, property damage claims, and public nuisance lawsuits on the books countrywide, right? Lawyers, politicians, and analysts must pore over this data, coming to the eventual conclusion that the best situation for everyone is to stop the children from playing the game that is as much a part of their lives as ice cream and homework, right? Because even in hockey heaven (that would be Canada), street hockey is outright banned in several municipalities, including certain streets in Toronto. Yes, Toronto, the same hockey-crazed city that is home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and its Stanley Cup. Back in 2006, the city of Halifax nearly passed a new bylaw that would outlaw any activity that “impeded traffic or threatened the safety of children.” Only an email from Nova Scotia’s own Sidney Crosby to the city’s mayor prompted a re-wording of the vague bill. So with all the legal resources being utilized in an effort to look out for the children and ensure their safety, where is the data to back it up? I can’t find it, which makes plenty of sense, since it doesn’t exist.
Instead, we’re left questioning why the authorities in the aforementioned communities even entertain these ridiculous complaints. Some may mention the obvious danger of kids running amongst cars. Surely that’s a valid point, considering the instances above involved children on public streets. But while it is true that I’m thousands of miles away from Nova Scotia and Quebec, and have no idea how many cars pass through these particular makeshift street rinks in a given hour, I can only assume that we’re talking about infrequently-traveled side roads. How can I make this assumption? Because as a former hockey-loving child, who spent many a day running and rolling around chasing orange balls, I can say this with certainty: everyone hates to move the nets. No child knowingly sets up a game of street hockey on a street that will require them to halt the game more than a once every 5-10 minutes. It just wouldn’t make sense, and it would sap the fun out of any game. So knowing that, is it really necessary to stop the games entirely for the safety of the children? Is there rampant property damage taking place throughout the country? Is the noise created by the sticks and balls and shuffling sneakers materially degrading the quality of suburban life? Hardly.
More likely, these anonymous complaints are originating from chronic complainers. Maybe their car was dinged with a tennis ball, or they’ve had to wait 15 seconds while the nets were moved, or they were just plain sick of kids yelling out things like “OVER HERE! OVER HERE!” or “WHAT A SAVE!” So rather than air their grievances to the kids or their parents, they call in the fuzz to handle the dirty work. And as it is with any local law enforcement, they are required to pay a visit and enforce the law, however hazy its semantics. In too many municipalities, it seems these police types are quick to side with the law, discretion and common sense be damned. But even the law enforcement community is starting to lean the other way.
“[Do] you want them playing ball out in the public, or do you want them hanging around in the back of the store? And the kids that I know in the community, when they see you coming…they get out of the way.” This from the mouth of Bill Estabrooks, the same Bill Estabrooks who has the title of Nova Scotia’s Minister of Transportation on his office door. While he admits that law enforcement must investigate all complaints, he also realizes that it takes a certain person to put an end to a street hockey game by way of an anonymous complaint. “[Street hockey] is a tradition in this country, and it should be allowed to continue.”
Only…it isn’t being allowed to. I’ve read more articles about kids being forced to abandon their street hockey pursuits than I have articles about property damage or severe injuries as a result of them. And where there are seemingly dozens of laws that vaguely refer to a ban on street hockey in one way or another, the young victims of the spotty enforcement have nothing aside from a love of the game and a national pride to fall back on. It seems that just isn’t enough.
So what is the solution? I wish there was a universal one.
We adults take for granted the ability to throw a net into a pickup truck and drive to an empty parking lot, but try explaining that to a 12-year-old. And trying to carry gear or a net on your bike is infinitely more dangerous than playing on even the busiest of streets. For children across the continent, street hockey is the closest resemblance to the hockey glory they have been watching on TV their entire lives. And now, because of a combination of poorly-worded bylaws and handcuffed law enforcement, the sticks are being taken out of their hands.
All we can hope is that the cities and towns that create and enforce these laws allow enough gray area in the wording to give the responding officers the ability to assess the situation correctly and make a proper judgment call. Because when you tell a group of 15 kids to put their sticks down, fold up their nets, and go inside, you’re not just pleasing a whining neighbor. You’re shutting down the very sport that fuels your country, and begetting the children to give up the sport for good.
So tell me: who benefits from that?
Image credits to foxtongue, michael francis mccarthy, and Duncan Rawlinson (whose flickr image is here, and whose blog is here).