Saturday, 5 March 2011

Champions Of Character

I was leaving school on Friday when I happened by a newspaper machine that was running a headline about local high school hockey. I appreciate the hard work that goes into high school hockey as kids juggle their school responsibilities with the demands and rigors of a hockey schedule and practices. Of course, being that the headline was about hockey, I stopped for a closer look. What I read left in a state that only the title of this article can describe. I want to give you my take on this story, and why I found the light at the end of the tunnel once I gave this story some thought.

There is an important quotation from Knute Rockne that needs to be prefaced here: "Win or lose, do it fairly". This is a very important quotation that I want you to keep in mind as I bring you this story about high school hockey from The Canadian Press. My comments will follow. Just as an aside, note that the two teams in this story are the Westwood Collegiate Warriors and the College Jeanne Sauvé Olympiens.

WINNIPEG - The coaches of a Winnipeg high school hockey team have been suspended after they pulled their goalie to throw a playoff game to eliminate a rival from championship contention.

"High school athletics are about the spirit of the game," said Winnipeg High School Hockey League president Mike Wake, who is also the principal of the offending school, Westwood Collegiate.

Wake planned to be on Westwood's bench Friday afternoon for a tie-breaker against the team it tried to bump from the semifinals, the Oak Park Raiders.

Yes, there's a conflict of interest, but I had to act," he said Friday.

The offending game happened Thursday.

There was a fair amount of consternation in the stands as parents, players and other coaches watched Westwood, ahead 3-2 in a game against College Jeanne Sauve, pull its goalie as time wound down.

Jean Sauve then scored the tying and winning goals and, with their relative positions in the standings, regular-season champion Oak Park was bumped from the A-Division series.

The Jean Sauve win ensured a rematch with Westwood in the semifinals, rather than Westwood having to take on Oak Park to move on to the championship.

Wake decided to let Jeanne Sauve retain the win and a spot in Saturday's semifinal and then have Westwood and Oak Park face off to decide the opponent. He said other schools in the 31-team league were consulted and agreed with his decision.

Westwood's volunteer coaches have been suspended for the rest of the season. None could be reached for comment.

Wake said no decisions have been made beyond that.

"Right now, I'm just trying to get through today."

He said credit goes to Westwood's players, who didn't like to see the game thrown and wanted to play the tie-breaker.

"These kids are winners already because they've stepped up and, as a principal, I'm very proud of them ... Unfortunately some adults got in the way of the kids.

"In the National Hockey League or the NBA or major league (baseball), if you've got a pennant clinched or a series wrapped up, yeah, maybe you don't put in your starting pitcher or starting quarterback," said Wake.

"Teams do do that. But to pull a goalie was just in total contradiction of what high school athletics stand for and what we stand for as a school."
Wow. This is a situation that's almost too bizarre to describe, and I'm shocked that it would happen in high school hockey game. But after reading and re-reading this story, there is definitely something I want to point out.

We've always looked at school as an institution where kids learn important lessons. The foundation of higher education and tomorrow's leaders is built on lessons learned in math, English, and history classes, but one of the most important things that children develop at school is character. Character isn't something taught specifically in any one class, but somewhere along the way there's always some sort of character that develops in students.

What is taught in high school sports is no different than what is taught in a classroom. Lessons are learned through winning, losing, and various experiences found between those two extremes. Children are constantly learning skills and behaviours that will help them in their future. They are, in some ways, just as important, and occasionally more important, in teaching children important life lessons and new skills.

"High school sports in general, we're an extension of the classroom," Westwood Collegiate Principal Mike Wake stated. "We really are and we promote that."

English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer stated, "Education has for its object the formation of character", and the Westwood Collegiate hockey team deserves some credit for showing their character. I truly believe that there was some excellent character shown by the Westwood Collegiate hockey players in calling out their coaches for their decisions in this game. What the coaches did as mentors and teachers of these players is downright despicable.

In any sporting event, the spirit of competition along with good sportsmanship should be stressed when dealing with amateur athletics. There is no winner when someone does something so abhorrent as throwing a game in order to screw over another team, let alone a fierce rival. But to have a high school team - a team of students - instructed by their coaches to lose a game on purpose is the very definition of poor sportsmanship, terrible ethics, and a lack of respect for the game, its players, and the other teams in their league.

Principal Mike Wake stated that it was the players who called out their coaches over this ridiculous act, and I'm proud of them for it. It takes a lot of moxie to stand up to the men who are supposed to be teaching you how to play the game the right way, and it shows that the Westwood Collegiate hockey team is a team made up of students that have outstanding quantities of character, integrity, and principle. Now that's the kind of team with which I'd want to be associated. And a few volunteer coaches decided that those qualities - qualities that the institution of school is supposed to instill in children - were unimportant once the students laced up their skates.

That, to me, is absolutely disgusting.

Now, I do want to say that I think that coaches Ryan Butterfield and Jim West made a huge error in judgment. I don't think that they should be crucified or anything, and they have been suspended. I think that they saw an opportunity to better the school by having them play for a championship, and that opportunity overrode their commitment to the game. It's a mistake, and, like the students they were coaching, they will undoubtedly learn from their mistake. Unfortunately, the consequences of their decision will have ramifications for a long time for these two men.

As I read this story, it brought back memories of a movie that has had a great amount of influence on me in terms of moral and ethical challenges. I want to present a small clip of that movie in honour of the men who proudly wear the Westwood Collegiate hockey jersey. Listen to the words spoken by Academy Award-winner Al Pacino. The Westwood Collegiate men represent everything spoken in this clip.
The boys on Westwood Collegiate's hockey team have shown everything that Pacino said was important in our future leaders: integrity, courage, principle, and character. These are the things that, he stated, will make us proud one day as these young men head out into the world.

I'll tell you this: I'm already proud of them for making things right. They recognized that the spirit of the game was not being honoured, and they did something about it. What they did was the right thing, and it goes as a credit to their families, their teachers, their friends, and themselves for showing that they are excellent examples of a shining future.

Westwood Collegiate should be proud of these young men. I know I am. Win or lose against Oak Park, these young men are already champions.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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