In the 361 career games Libor Ustrnul played in the Ontario League, the minors and Europe, he rarely left any doubt about his approach to the game. Playing at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Ustrnul was a stay-at-home defenseman who scored just seven goals and earned 876 penalty minutes. According the website hockeyfights.com, he fought a total of 34 times, with 16 of those fights coming in 1999-2000, his rookie season with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers.
But he could also play the game. He was good enough to be a second-round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2000 and was a key member of the Czech Republic team that won the gold medal at the World Junior Championship in 2001. The next year, he captained the Czech team at the WJC. Ustrnul played parts of four seasons with the Chicago Wolves of the American League, including one playoff game for the Wolves when the won the Calder Cup in 2001-02. As a 16-year-old, he came to Canada to play for the Thunder Bay Flyers in the USHL where he was a teammate of future NHLer Patrick Sharp.
So he clearly has something to offer young players in the Chicago area, where he has settled in retirement. He coaches a junior varsity team and elite minor hockey in the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills. He also runs informal on-ice sessions with players who want to improve everything from their defensive play to their battle skills. That’s what he was doing on the morning of Aug. 1 at the Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills when he had players ranging in age from 11 to 13 engaging in full-on fights, with players taking turns slugging each other in the helmet with gloves on.
And this was not an isolated incident, but it did happen to be captured on video by the coaching staff of a team that was in town participating in a tournament. Ustrnul was clear to point out that the drill had nothing to do with the Glacier Ice Arena program or USA Hockey, that it was done among players who paid for Ustrnul’s tutelage and were willing participants.
“Almost all those guys on the ice are family friends and I’ve worked with them for three or four years,” Ustrnul said. “I work the boys hard and after practice, I ask the boys, ‘Hey, you guys want to do some battles, a little scrimmage or do you want to go in a circle and we’ll fight?’ And most of the time they say, ‘Let’s fight.’ They’re pretty much in the same age group and in the same weight class. It’s a 20-second little fight, punches in the face with the gloves on and helmet on. Most of the time they’re laughing. If they go down on the ice, I blow the whistle. I don’t want people to think, ‘Here’s these kids playing for this big, mean European and they have to kill each other.”
Well, you have to give Ustrnul props for talking about it. In fact, he called me back several times after I reached out to him to get comments on the video. He makes no apologies for his approach, saying he has never been suspended as a minor hockey coach, nor have his teams ever been involved in any on-ice mayhem. “They’re not getting this in schools, they don’t even let them climb trees,” said Ustrnul, the father of two girls. “What I’m teaching them is to stand up for themselves and respond. If your teammate is getting jumped, you have to stand up for him.”
Well, that should open up the debate quite nicely. There’s no doubt Ustrnul honestly believes this is something that needs to be taught, he really does. But I’m going to go ahead and disagree that kids in the stages of early adolescence shouldn’t be punching each other in the head, even in a controlled setting and even if they’re eager to do it. In fact, that’s probably a better reason for not allowing it, since kids that age don’t always have a huge regard for the consequences of their actions. For the overwhelmingly vast majority of players, fighting is not a skill they will ever need because only an infinitesimal percentage of the kids who play minor hockey will ever advance to a level where fighting is tolerated. With what we know about developing brains and concussions, the risk of injury from punching each other with a padded glove is simply too high. That kind of impact on a young brain can be devastating.
This is almost certainly a rare incidence, an outlier. But the fact that it can still happen in the 21 century with all we know about concussions is troubling. There are people out there who, like Ustrnul, really believe it’s appropriate and helpful to teach kids how to fight. Nothing could be further from reality. People who are in charge of the hockey development of young players should know better.