Children’s entertainer Raffi shares his views on violence in hockey
If you were born any time after 1970, chances are you have childhood memories of Raffi Cavoukian's music.
Referred to by the Washington post in 1992 as "the most popular children's singer in the English-speaking world," from Bananaphone to Baby Beluga, Raffi entertained children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s with his catchy, educational, and positive folk music.
As someone who has been literally obsessed with music my whole life, Raffi was one of my first exposures to the musical world, and many of my own childhood memories are set to the backdrop of his tunes.
One thing Raffi has been very vocal about in recent months on his Twitter feed has been the topic of violence in hockey.
After attending several high school and minor hockey games since starting my job as a sports reporter, I personally have been bothered not only by the amount of fighting that goes on, but by the actions of the parents in the stands. I was shocked when I saw fathers and mothers of these young players cheering on their sons in fights.
One night several weeks ago when I was home trying to write a column on that topic, and by that I mean procrastinating on Twitter, I decided to go out on a limb and Tweet at Raffi, and ask him if he'd be interested in doing an interview on his views on the subject to accompany my column. To my surprise, he agreed, and he took the time to do a phone interview with me.
Raffi's love for children has extended past his music in recent years, and he's now involved with a nonprofit organization called Child Honouring, based out of his community of Salt Spring Island, BC. The organization encourages a children-first approach to healthy communities and a healthy planet through respecting children from birth, so they grow up to be kind and respectful themselves.
The idea that we in Canada encourage such violence in our national sport, doesn't jive with his views, especially when so many young people in our country love the game so much.
"I love the game of hockey, when I came to Canada (from Egypt) as a boy when I was ten years old, my family arrived in Toronto, and I was a Leafs fan for a long time, and the part I really didn't like was the rough stuff, especially the fighting," Raffi said. "So even though I moved to the west coast 20 years ago and became a Canucks fan, in recent years I've been dismayed to see the amount of violence in the game. And recently, there's been a lot of calls for something to be done, especially with all the concussions and the deaths of several former so called ‘enforcers' in one year."
Raffi decided to join the conversation.
Earlier this month he released a blog on his organization's webpage called "What's pro hockey got to do with world peace?" In it, he goes into detail about how we, as nation, need to overhaul the way we play hockey so that it's about outsmarting, not outfighting, the other team. He calls this approach ‘smart hockey.'
"Hockey should not be a state of tension, waiting for a fight to break out. The goal of the game should be the determination of two teams to outdo one another in their skills, creating an entertaining, fast flowing game with hand-to-hand rushes, great plays, and great goal tending," he said. "Why bring it down to the lowest common denominator? It's ridiculous."
In my conversation with Raffi, he suggested that unlike other sports that have very strict rules on violence within the game, NHL referees need to follow the rulebook more and make the necessary calls when it comes to fighting.
"Why aren't all NHL games called by the rule book? In the playoff rounds for example, you'll hear commentators say ‘oh the officials are just letting them play it today.' Well, what does that mean? If you're a kid watching a game, what does that tell you?" he said. "That doesn't happen in the NBA, CFL, NFL, or soccer. What pro sport condones this? Even football, which is so hard-hitting and tough, if you throw a punch, you're out of the game."
Aside from bringing the skill level in hockey down to brutish fighting, Raffi argues that it's also counterintuitive for teams to have so many top players out due to injuries, many because of fighting.
"Hockey is a really rough sport, and there's going to be inevitable injuries, we should keep them to unavoidable accidents rather than add to them," Raffi explained. "The per game average for man-games lost due to injury for Vancouver last year was four. There were four men our due to injury at any given time. That's not smart for the game, fans don't want to see second stringers called up due to injuries, they want to see the stars."
Raffi said he wanted to appeal to Hockey Canada to start enforcing these rules much more strictly, not only in the pro leagues, but starting at the youngest levels to encourage the smart hockey approach, which favours brain over brawn.
"I appeal to Hockey Canada to take this smart hockey approach, to really radically commit and devote themselves, as an organization, to pacifying the game. It's not about just the NHL, it's about the junior levels which feed the NHL, so let's start a culture of respect and sportsmanship in hockey," he said. "I think hockey devoid of violence would be more entertaining and draw even more fans to the game, and it would make a family friendly experience of going to the rink all across this country."
Aside from one major thing Raffi and I agree on, which is that hockey would be a lot more enjoyable if someone permanently muted Don Cherry (but that's a story for another column), I think he's onto something.
I know the discussion of ‘what makes our kids violent' has been beaten to death over the decades, and as living proof that watching hours of gory horror movies throughout life doesn't make one a violent person, I know for sure hockey has the ability to surface violence.
I've talked to the kids on many hockey teams, these are good kids, and not people that would go out and start a fight on the schoolyard, but because of the level of acceptance that violence has found in hockey, these players have no problem throwing a punch in the rink. And their parents egging them on probably doesn't help.
Which raises the question, if it's all in good fun and in the name of entertainment, does it really hurt? I'm not saying every kid that ruffles another kid's hair at a Friday night game should be cause for shock and moral outrage, but it clearly does hurt. We know this - three NHL enforcers have committed suicide in the past year, and it's been suggested that it was due to brain damage caused by injuries sustained while fighting.
Morals aside, perhaps it's my lack of testosterone, but whenever I'm at a Cataracts game and both teams are in fighting moods, I find myself rolling my eyes and playing with my cell phone for half the game as I wait for players to fight it out so we can get back to the good stuff, the real hockey. If I wanted to see two sweaty men fighting, I'd go to a boxing ring, or a bar on George Street.
So I would have to say I agree with Raffi's ideas about smart hockey, and I'm glad to have joined the conversation. Hopefully if enough people join in, it will lead eventually to a more enjoyable, exciting, and skill based game.
"Violence is not a joke, it hurts. It hurts families, it hurts our nation to condone it," said Raffi. "No family really relishes an ugly mood. I think we would all feel better if the mood (in hockey) was up, if it was inspiring, if we celebrated the smarts of a team trying to outdo another team, if we felt admiration at the rink. Wouldn't that be great? We're not brutes. We're consciously evolving humans, and I think we can do better. I think we can remake this game."
To hear more about Raffi's opinions on violence in hockey, you can check out his blog "What's pro hockey got to do with world peace?" at childhonouring.org, or find him on Twitter @Raffi_RC.