This week's Hockey News and the Globe and Mail have both addressed the hazards of this activity. We have reprinted the Globe article to raise awareness and create an avenue for parents and coachs to have a discussion regarding these hazard with the players.
Locker-boxing, minor hockey's vicious little secret, has surfaced recently in Toronto, thanks to the all-seeing eye of YouTube.
The Age of YouTube has produced new, splintered brands of minor fame -- and until last week, hockey coach Dave Gwyn had no idea that his own team was starring in an Internet clip that has put one of Toronto minor hockey's violent secrets on the world stage.
The footage, tagged "Martone vs. Tric," shows several members of Mr. Gwyn's Triple-A team engaging in "locker boxing," an activity that resembles a gladiatorial combat in hockey helmets and gloves.
Captured on a camera phone inside a locker room at a Toronto rink, the video shows Mr. Gwyn's players punching each other into submission while the rest of the team watches and cheers them on.
Mr. Gwyn, who had never seen the footage until this week, was amazed to learn what his players were doing behind closed doors: "I had no idea," he says. "Obviously, this is not something we condone."
What happened with Mr. Gwyn's team (the Wexford Raiders Triple-A midgets, for players aged 16 and 17) is not an aberration. "I think it happens on a lot of teams," said Ben Davis, a veteran coach and the owner of a respected hockey school. "We hear about it."
Although few parents are aware of it, insiders say locker boxing (also known as "bucket fighting" or "helmet and gloves") is an old sports activity that has been given a new twist by the arrival of cheap video-recording devices and the Internet. YouTube now features countless locker-boxing videos involving young players from several sports, like hockey and lacrosse.
In some cases, players jam sticks in the door to lock out the coaches, then fight until someone submits, or gets knocked out. And videos are becoming a near standard feature. The Wexford video is one of several posted by Stallion1111, whose other video offerings include hockey highlights and street fights. (Stallion1111 did not respond to an e-mailed interview request.)
Many Toronto hockey parents were stunned to learn that locker boxing went on. One father whose son has played in the Greater Toronto Hockey League for the past six years, expressed shocked disbelief. "They close the door, and it's Lord of the Flies in there."
Andy Meth, a Toronto hockey instructor and former pro player, says locker boxing is well known among players, but parents are kept out of the loop. Mr. Meth says he locker-boxed with teammates 30 years ago as a seven-year-old boy. "Everyone did it," says Mr. Meth. "But back then, no one was taking video."
Dave Gardner, a former NHL player who now coaches in the GTHL, thinks locker boxing is on the upswing, and that there is now an escalated level of violence that may be attributed to the desire for camera-worthy material. "They play to the camera," he said.
Some officials appear to be complicit: Mr. Gardner says he was recently invited into a locker room by another coach to see "something special," only to find himself observing a particularly nasty locker-boxing match. "They put on their helmets and gloves and beat the crap out of each other," Mr. Gardner said. "I was pretty surprised."
Although young players believe that their helmets will protect them, medical officials warn that locker boxing can be extremely dangerous. "There isn't a helmet made that can eliminate concussion," says Dr. Kevin Gordon, a pediatric neurologist and Dalhousie University professor who has studied the phenomenon. "The helmets make players feel invulnerable, and they're not."
Dr. Gordon has played a role in the locker-boxing issue that could be seen as the medical equivalent of Dr. David Stanley's exploration of Africa: Although locker boxing has been around for years, Dr. Gordon is among the first to investigate it and report back to the outside world. Last year, he brought attention to locker boxing when he published an article entitled "Helmet and Gloves - a New Piece of the Concussion Puzzle."
Dr. Gordon learned about locker boxing while treating a young male patient whose symptoms didn't add up. After questioning, the boy confessed that he'd been knocked out by a teammate during a locker-boxing match.
After that first case, Dr. Gordon soon encountered many other athletes who had been injured in locker-boxing matches. Some suffered serious injuries that included head trauma, facial lacerations and fractured hands. In one case involving an Ontario minor hockey team, a player nearly lost his toes when he walked out of the shower and had his foot stepped on by a locker-boxing teammate wearing skates.
"I was amazed," says Dr. Gordon. "This has been going on for years, right under the noses of parents and coaches, and no one really seemed to know much about it. It's a secret activity. The kids don't want to tell you."
Some of the most violent locker-boxing incidents Dr. Gordon has dealt with involves young girls. One was a 15-year-old minor hockey player who participated in matches that went on until one of the players was knocked out. Dr. Gordon was asked to treat the girl after she was diagnosed with a mood disorder, only to discover that she had been knocked out several times while locker boxing.
Another patient was a 14-year-old girl who told him about a brutal bout held in a hotel room during a team road trip: More than a dozen girls gathered in the room, locked the door, and watched as two players from an under-17 girls' team fought until one of them was knocked out. When a coach knocked on the door and asked what was going on, they dragged the unconscious girl behind a bed. (The girl regained consciousness, and played hockey the next day.)
After researching the history of locker boxing, Dr. Gordon has concluded that it originated in hockey and lacrosse locker rooms. Both sports value toughness. Dr. Gordon believes that many athletes and coaches see locker boxing as "a time-honoured test of manhood."
Dr. Gordon says few understand the real risks involved: "We're talking about impacts that can approach prize-fight levels," he said.
Toronto hockey dad David Kitching, a television writer and producer who played competitive hockey himself, believes locker boxing is the bastard child of modern media, which offer a cornucopia of depersonalized violence, ranging from Ultimate Fighting contests to hockey brawls and cartoons. For children raised on images that make violence seem abstract and harmless, Mr. Kitching believes, it's all too easy to apply the lessons of television to real life.
"You can trace the lineage all the way back to Looney Tunes and the Three Stooges," Mr. Kitching said. "You watch people getting blown up and eviscerated, and it's all funny. There are all these terrible, violent things happening, but nobody gets hurt."
After watching his players duke it out on the Internet, Mr. Gwyn took action. This week, he called a meeting of the Raiders to let them know that locker boxing won't be tolerated. Mr. Gwyn was clearly shaken by what he had seen. "This is not something I accept," he said.
Mr. Gwyn said the presence of the camera seemed to have altered his players' behaviour: "These aren't bad kids," he said. "This isn't typical of them."
One of the players in the video, Mr. Gwyn said, is noted for his gentlemanly play and his studiousness: "This is a straight-A student who probably has less than six penalty minutes. It's hard to believe that's him in the video."
The Huron Perth Lakers will not condone this behavior, our coaches have been advised of this potential hazard and advised to give this direction to their athletes. It is our hope that parents discuss this with their children and support the Laker ban on this activity.