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NHL should take a leadership role in cleaning up hockey
By Damien Cox, Toronto Star, Wed. Nov. 4, 1998.
Maybe Jeff Kugel just lost it.
Or maybe the 18-year-old Windsor Spitfire knew precisely what he was doing.
At 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, Kugel was styling himself to be the biggest, baddest goon in major junior hockey.
Maybe he watched last Friday's Toronto-Buffalo game and saw Tie Domi and Rob Ray, two flamboyant pugs who will earn a combined $2.1 million (U.S.) this season, fight twice in the opening 13 minutes of the contest for no particular reason.
Kugel, a native of Roseville, Mich., could view that spectacle and say, ``I could do that.''
He could look at almost three dozen NHLers - most of them graduates of the Canadian major junior system - who make their living largely with their fists while pulling down an average salary in excess of $600,000 (U.S.) and say, ``I could do that.''
But now, Kugel has been banned for life by OHL president Dave Branch after going absolutely berserk in an Oct. 25 brawl with the Owen Sound Platers.
``I was disgusted,'' said Owen Sound forward Adam Mair, a Maple Leafs draft pick who received a two-game suspension in the same incident. ``It was like a scene out of Slap Shot.''
Clearly, you can't blame the NHL for the actions of one sadly misguided kid in another jurisdiction.
But as long as the No. 1 pro league richly rewards players for skills other than actually playing the game legally, it bears a responsibility for the influence it has on lower levels.
But if the NHL remains a big part of the problem when it comes to violence and intimidation in hockey, former NHLers are becoming part of the growing trend toward restoring skill and fun to the Canadian development system. Hall-of-famer Brad Park called The Star after reading the four-part series ``Losing the Edge,'' detailing problems in Canada's hockey system.
``We're all concerned about skills in Canada,'' Park said.
Park, who lives near Boston, is a partner in the North American Super Skills Academy which specializes in measuring the passing, shooting, skating and puckhandling skills of minor hockey players, giving them a report card and then showing them how to polish those skills.
Former Montreal Canadiens superstar Guy Lafleur, meanwhile, was named Monday as the national chairman of Canadian Hockey's ``Play Right'' program for peewee and bantam-aged players (12-15), a program that emphasizes skill development, a positive attitude, conditioning and nutrition.
``We tell our kids that we want them to have fun and they think we're liars when they don't have a good time,'' Lafleur said.
Ron Dussiaume wasn't good enough to crack an NHL lineup in his day, but he did manage a seven-year minor-league career that included a stop with the Rochester Americans, then coached by Don Cherry.
``(Cherry) was an amazing motivator,'' Dussiaume said. ``What he lacked was hockey knowledge. He couldn't take an average skater and make him better.
``There's no doubt he is hurting the game now. He is promoting a certain style of play . . . and most people feel it's time to go the other way.''
Dussiaume runs Mitron Sports Enterprises, a Sudbury-based company with offices in Toronto which specializes in installing high-tech skill development programs in minor hockey associations throughout the province.
``Change is the issue,'' Dussiaume said. ``We're having to make a huge paradigm shift in this country.''
The NHL could lead this burgeoning era of change.
It could leave the Jeff Kugels of the hockey world with no financial motivation to pursue the career of a goon.
Until then, it's up to men with foresight, men like Dave Branch.