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January 31, 2007

Youth Gone Mild
TFP's Greg Wyshynski talks with Devils center Jim Dowd about youth hockey and how NHL rule enforcement is helping to purge aggression from it in the U.S.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Jimmy Dowd was one of the lucky ones.

"The bottom line is that hockey is not part of the youth culture in the U.S.," said Dowd, in his 15th NHL season and currently playing for the New Jersey Devils

And he's right: For every cradle of hockey aptitude like Minnesota, Michigan and New England, there are regions where having the opportunity to smack around the puck depends on ice availability, or gear affordability, or the willingness of magnanimous mothers to drive their young Gretzkys-in-waiting several hours for a club league game.

Dowd, however, grew up in Brick, N.J. — a populous township in Ocean County that had two ice rinks and a hockey community that was willing to support and nurture young players through its youth and scholastic systems.

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I, on the other hand, grew up in Matawan, N.J., where the best sheet of ice was on Lake Lefferts during January and "supporting young players" involved someone helping your ass up after they just deked you out of your skates for a goal.

(For you film buffs, The Ocean Ice Palace in Brick Town is also where director Kevin Smith shot that scene in "Chasing Amy" where Joey Lauren Adams is unleashing obscenity-filled taunts at the players during a brutally entertaining game, while Ben Affleck is trying to have a heart-to-heart about their relationship. Obviously, she wasn't a true fan — puck-bunnies know better than to bring their poofy haired Metrosexual boyfriends to hockey night.)

What I love about guys like Jimmy Dowd is that they understand the importance of community in hockey.

Each year, Dowd hosts an All-Shore All-Star Game between high-school aged players from Ocean and neighboring Monmouth County. It's a geographic blood feud in high-school football transferred to the ice for a charity event that benefits Dowd's Shoot for the Stars Foundation, which offers financial support to local residents in need.

And just like he was educated by his community as a young player, Dowd and producer John Fortuna have recently put out an instructional hockey DVD for players ages 8-12 called "Shoot for the Stars," which is available for $23.95 (plus shipping) through It's a comprehensive collection of drills and skills that are essential for any young player, and a chance to project "a good, positive message out there for youth sports," according to Dowd.

"We're teaching how to play the game the right way," he added.

But what concerns Dowd is that instead of playing the right way, youth hockey in the U.S. might be losing its way.

Last year, USA Hockey took the NHL's lead and issued a national edict on draconian enforcement of "obstruction" rules, including:

- The use of the stick will be limited to only playing the puck.
- The stick will not be allowed to in any way impede a player's progress.
- The use of a free hand/arm will not be allowed to grab or impede a player's progress.
- Players who use their physical skills and/or anticipation and have a positional advantage shall not lose that advantage as a result of illegal acts by the opponent.

On a professional level, these rule enforcements have at best led to a parade of momentum-sapping power plays and at worst baffled players as to what is legal and when it's allowed.

Obstruction in the NHL has become like holding in the NFL — a nebulous, overtly subjective call whose chances for honest enforcement decrease every second the game creeps closer to its conclusion. Yet no matter how it’s legislated, it remains an intrinsic — though illegal — facet of nearly every play.

So perhaps the only way to rid hockey of obstruction is to begin educating about its evils in a player's infancy. Now, in youth leagues around the nation, mixed in with wind sprints and puck-handling drills will be enduring lessons on when not to make contact in a contact sport.

Jimmy Dowd — a guy who's banged around through nine NHL teams and has his name on the Stanley Cup — isn't exactly a fan of this new education. (No Child Left Behind The Play, perhaps?)

"You're taught as a kid growing up that you gotta pay a price to score a goal, that it's worth it if you get knocked on your butt if you end up scoring that goal," said Dowd, through his Central Jersey accent. "You're taught as a defenseman to knock that guy down and not let anybody go to the net. Now, you can’t touch anybody.

"You used to go to the rink to get your aggression out. Now it's a passive game. They're turning it into a joke."

A passive game... a joke... oh Lord, could the future of hockey possibly look like the 2007 YoungStars Game?

Anyone who saw that abortion of hockey, that putrid waste of time and good ice during the NHL All-Star party in Dallas knows what passive, unmotivated hockey looks like: no hits, apathetic skating and a bunch of players picking more cherries than a line worker in a Hostess pie factory.

I've come across a couple of intriguing replacements for the YoungStars Game. Kostya Kennedy of Sports Illustrated suggested a showcase for CHL All-Stars. NHL blogger Steve Lepore told me he'd take a page from professional basketball and have a Freshmen vs. Sophomores game between rookies and second-years. (An NBA idea in the NHL? Heavens to Bettman!)

Both solutions are centered on turning an exhibition into a competition. And it's when there's something to play for — from neighborhood bragging rights to Lord Stanley's Chalice — that The Game truly succeeds.

Because in the end, it'll always be about The Game. Leagues make rules; the Game just exists. It's found in a 10-year-old kid working on his slap-shot mechanics with a hockey DVD. It's found on a frozen pond during a snow day or an empty basketball court getting scuffed up by blades, both roller and stick.

"You go out and play with your friends," said Dowd. "That's how you get better."

Solid advice, courtesy of the man from Brick Town.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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