Taming the Wild West
By Greg Harder, Leader-Post
November 23, 2011
The Old West is dead.
The landscape of the Western Hockey League - a once-lawless frontier, by today's standards, anyway - has undergone drastic changes over the years. That includes the role of WHL vice-president Richard Doerksen, who serves as judge, jury and executioner in matters of league discipline.
"I get asked quite often about how the game has changed," offered Doerksen, a member of the WHL's front office for 30 years. "On a Monday in today's game, we'll get a phone call from a general manager who's really upset be-cause a hook was called or wasn't called in the second period of a 5-2 game. When I started, the general manager would call and he was upset because it wasn't his guy who was first off the bench (in a brawl), it was a guy from the other team. The way hockey used to be played and the way it's played now can pretty much be summed up in that comment."
Make no mistake, Doerksen's memory bank contains many more examples.
He could write a book on the subject.
"I can remember one year we sat at the general managers' meeting and, in our wisdom, we decided when a player received his seventh game misconduct he would get a one-game suspension and then his eighth and ninth game misconducts would be freebies," recalled Doerksen. "On his 10th, he would get a two-game suspension. His 11th and 12th would be freebies and on his 13th he would get a three-game suspension. For the most part when a player gets a (single) game misconduct now he gets suspended for it. We hardly ever have players getting three game misconducts anymore. It has changed so drastically over the years."
The same goes for fighting.
"A lot of our officials that start working for us now will have never been involved in a line brawl," noted Doerksen. "In the old days, you were happy to go through a few games in a row without a line brawl. It's fun (to talk about). You can tell those old stories and you watch the new people and their eyes get big. They just can't believe some of the things that went on."
Despite the nostalgia that some people feel for those times, Doerksen believes the game has changed for the better.
"We grow every year," he continued. "The last few years we've really, really tried to crack down on hits to the head. This is the first year we actually have the checking-to-the-head penalty, which I think is going to be very, very good for our game. We have evolved right through the years. Checking from behind came in after the Brad Hornung situation (the former Regina Pats star was paralyzed in 1987). We jumped right on that and we've dealt with that ever since. I remember way back guys would run (opposing players) on icings. We had to put a stop to that with rules and suspensions. Then of course we changed and evolved right into automatic icing, which takes that out totally. The multiple fights, we put in rules to stop that because we felt we were getting too many line brawls. We put the instigator in. Our league has been very proactive over the years as things developed."
Looking back, Doerksen admits he would have been laughed out of the room as recently as 10 years ago if he walked into a league meeting and proposed the measures taken today to curb head shots and concussions.
No one is laughing now.
"I'm glad to see the NHL has in-creased their suspensions," noted Doerksen. "In the past they were perhaps a little less than we were. I think us and Quebec have always been very similar, us and the American League have been very similar. The Ontario Hockey League from time to time has really big suspensions and they've given out some very big ones at the start of this year. In terms of the areas of emphasis this year, the checking to the head especially, I really think the players get the message right through all of hockey. I think the game is better for it."
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