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In June of 2019, the USA Hockey Board of Directors ratified the Declaration of Safety, Fair Play and Respect. From players to coaches to referees to parents, the intent of the Declaration is taking the time and creating a culture that eliminates hits to the head, late hits, and hits from behind.
Stripes spoke with ADM regional manager Scott Paluch about the Declaration and its onus on changing the culture and getting everybody on the same page.
Stripes: What is your role with the Declaration?
Scott Paluch: As part of the American Development Model (ADM), we constantly have been in discussions on different aspects of the game and the betterment of the game. Over the last 18 months, prior to the Declaration coming out, we discussed the current state of body checking in America. We took a very close look at what the American Association of Pediatrics and the Mayo Clinic were recommending as far as what they feel full contact should be brought into youth sports.
We matched that up with where we were currently with our body contact into our full body checking at 14 years. We monitored that and when we took a closer look with the youth council, the refs, the coaching, we laid out a lot of solutions to the current situation with checking. It led to the forming and the ultimate release of the Declaration of Player Safety.
Stripes: Why is this important to have the Declaration?
Paluch: It brings together all the entities, all the bodies who are responsible for keeping our game safe. Everyone is responsible for us putting out an efficient, safe product for our young athletes - the parents, the players, the coaches and the referees.
It is important for coaches, parents, referees and everyone to understand what we really feel is proper contact for youth hockey, what the rulebook actually says and how the rulebook should be called. When you get everybody on the same page with one consistent focus of having an outstanding hockey product along with a real safe environment for our athletes, it’s a win-win for everybody.
Stripes: You mentioned getting everyone on the same page. How much of a change is it for those in the game?
Paluch: I don’t think it’s much of a change for them. It’s more of a cultural change where we went through a whole shift in puck philosophy. Years ago, checking was the separation of a player and the puck, but then there was an intimidation factor that crept into our game. Then we back to the separating of the player. Now, what everyone is really understanding is that the actual objective of body contact and body checking is for me to win the puck. I want to put myself in a position to win the puck. In order to do that, you’re going to have your stick in a much better hockey position, down on the ice, down near the puck.
When you start putting the focus on what the actual reason is for checking, it gives people a clearer understanding of what should be expected and what is going to be tolerated within our game.
Stripes: It’s only been a few months, but what has been the initial reaction?
Paluch: One of the initial reactions took the focus away from the players and concentrated more on the unsportsmanlike penalties for banging sticks on the boards. Obviously, the focus should be on player safety and doing what’s right for the young athletes. Now, once that initial reaction was sorted out and that rule was clarified, we got ourselves back on track to promote the right type of body contact to create a great game and a safer game.
Stripes: How has the impact been felt on the officiating side?
Paluch: For us, we’re watching the game to see how the player behavior is. I’ve also got a sense early on that I’ve been ecstatic with how well the referees have adapted to this. I’ve seen the calls in terms of the focus - with the stick being down on the ice, no contact with a defenseless player, no contact with a player who is already engaged – the referees have been really committed to making those calls early on. I’ve been really impressed with how they’ve handled it.
Stripes: As the culture shifts and everyone seems to adapt, what constitutes success with the Declaration?
Paluch: In my mind, we just need to continue to keep working towards a product that keeps our young athletes safe and creates a better hockey game. As time goes on, we’re going to see that. It’s a work in progress with everybody. As I mentioned before, this isn’t just coaches and players. It’s coaches, players, referees and USA Hockey who are tasked with getting the message out.
A lot of what has come out of the Declaration is basically a reinforcement of how the rulebook is written. What happened over time was, there became a more cultural understanding of the rulebook rather than adhering to what was actually written in the rulebook. For example, I think interference is always interference, but I think it was slowly allowed a level of contact away from the puck over time. Even holding to that point.
There are thing that have somehow crept into the game over time, but now I think the Declaration is bringing it back to how the rulebook was written in regard to what the game should look like and player safety within the rulebook.
Stripes: What is the full history to working towards the Declaration and working towards June to when it was released?
Paluch: For us on the development side, this part of the game is always in our eyes and always in our conversation. For us, the timeframe for the Mayo Clinic and American Association of Pediatrics, when they released their statements, it put a responsibility on hockey leadership to take a look at where things were. It’s important to note that this kind of conversation is ongoing with our body on the development side (American Development Model). We’re always looking at our game in ways to improve the education of our game, the teaching of our game and ultimately making sure we are creating a safe environment for our young athletes.