Ryan Arnold admits in the heat of moment he had made a grievous mistake as head coach of the Viking Construction peewee Tier 1 Cougars hockey team when he ordered his players off the ice instead of lining up to shake the hands of their Nanaimo opponents after their game.
Arnold's protest at the Vernon tournament Sunday, prompted by what he saw as an injustice to his team, triggered a flood of hate mail loaded with accusations his players are unsportsmanlike bullies and comments that demonize Arnold and his staff as unworthy of ever being allowed to coach hockey again.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Matt Marotta, a 12-year-old Viking defenceman, has justifiably drawn heaps of praise for his decision to stay on the ice after the game to pay his respects to his victorious opponents after they beat his team in double overtime.
The Prince George Minor Hockey Association has suspended Arnold and assistant coach Sean Gendron for 30 days, pending further investigation. While he can accept that he might not get to coach his team in the provincial championship at UBC, March 16-19, Arnold says it's not fair to his players to be the brunt of so much negative publicity.
"I expect there to be consequences, and I don't blame them for suspending me, they have to do something to save face because this has cast a huge black cloud over Prince George minor hockey and the city of Prince George," said Arnold.
"The most upsetting part for me was that first letter to the editor from that lady in Kelowna [Carol Purves] wrote, which paints our boys like bullies and that they've ostracized Matthew for what he had done. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Ultimately it's a decision I made and I will wear it. I made a mistake. All I can do is own what happened, learn from it and move forward, and that's what I'm prepared to do."
Sunday's loss for Viking in the fifth-place game was their third overtime game of the tournament. By Arnold's account, with 14 seconds left in the second OT period, Viking won a faceoff and had puck possession in the Nanaimo end but the scoreclock did not start ticking down. The Nanaimo team yelled out to get the clock started but that didn't happen until the puck was in the neutral zone and the Prince George team then voiced its concerns. The clock finally started running when the puck crossed the red line. The Nanaimo puck carrier went behind the net, came out and circled and let go a shot that went into the Viking net off a Prince George player.
"The period should have ended before the goal was scored," said Arnold. "The clock had been malfunctioning all tournament long. It would go completely black or they would push the button and it wouldn't run."
The referee, aware of the problems that weekend with the clock, explained to Arnold earlier in the game that he and the other officials would try to figure out any lost time if that happened again.
"When they scored the goal, I told my players to come to the bench because this game's not over," said Arnold. "The ref signaled the puck was in the net, then went to the scorekeeper's box and had a meeting there. I figured they were going to fix this and get it right."
But at that point, tournament chair Marty Stein went to the bench and spoke to the referee, who then signaled the goal would stand and the game was over. The referee explained to Arnold that two members of the tournament committee had been watching the clock and by taking into account the delay in starting it, had estimated Nanaimo had enough time to score the gamewinner. Arnold became incensed and told his players to leave the ice.
"I guarantee I uttered a few swear words during our argument but it was never as an adjective to describe anybody and I'm not disputing that I wasn't speaking with a loud voice to get my point across but I thought I was gaining traction with the referee and that we might get this game to go on," said Arnold.
"I completely overlooked the handshake part with Nanaimo and it wasn't their fault the game ended that way, but I wanted to leave a mini-protest to the Vernon tournament. Everyone was upset and it was just easier to get out of there and that was a mistake on my part."
While Arnold was making his argument, he noticed Marotta was the only Viking player on the ice and he was being swarmed by the Nanaimo players praising his efforts to show them his respect .
Before and after Tuesday's practice, the Viking coaches met with the players to discuss the incident and none of the players expressed any animosity to Marotta, who showed up at the rink to watch the practice even though he was sick.
"I expected there to be a backlash, but not to the proportions that it's been," said Ryan Arnold. "It makes it a better story if it was an adversarial thing between the coach and Matthew, and Matthew and the team, and that's completely inaccurate."
PGMHA president Alec Hartney said the discipline committee still has to interview parents and coaches before a final decision is made. He said that won't happen until Sunday at the earliest. A 30-day suspension is the maximum the association can impose without the approval of BC Hockey.
Arnold, a 40-year-old RCMP officer, was peewee coach of the year last season in the PGMHA and he's gained a reputation of giving each of his players equal playing time. In eight seasons of coaching he says has received just one two-minute bench penalty over that time for arguing an offiicial's call. He was suspended this season for failing to turn in scoresheets in time to the minor hockey office.
The Viking staff includes Arnold, Gendron, Eddy Dent, Rob Crobar and team manager Shawn McLaughlin, all of whom were at the game. Gendron was also suspended because he reinforced Arnold's instructions to have the players leave the ice right after the game. Knowing how parents objected to not seeing their boys shake hands after the game, McLaughlin said he should have stepped in and told them to return to the ice. Had they done that, none of what has since transpired would have happened. But he doesn't think Arnold deserves the punishment he's already received, especially in the court of public opinion.
"He battles for those boys as hard as they battle for us and obviously the handshake thing should have been dealt differently," said McLaughlin. "We don't think the boys made a mistake, we all failed the boys in a sense when none of us stepped up to put a halt to it. Myself or the other coaches could have told the guys to get back out there but nobody did."
Liza Arnold, Ryan's wife, said she was mad at him at first when she read his text telling her of his actions in Vernon, until he came home and she heard his explanation why he went to the lengths he did to defend his team.
"Do I wish they stopped and shook hands, absolutely," said Liza Arnold. "But the saddest thing for me is I know the group of boys we have and the group of parents and staff we have, and this is a very good group of people.
"The boys go to restaurants when they travel and the people there say they've never had a group of boys as good as those boys. What people have to understand is that doesn't happen without a good group of coaches taking the lead with them. Now we have coaches are receiving hate mail from anonymous people in several provinces plastering horrific things on Facebook and we have our boys being called bullies in the paper.
"What Matthew did was very good and I think it's going to be a learning opportunity for everybody," she said. "But right now we have an extremely good group of men who do so much work for hockey, for their boys, and for their community who are getting beaten down. My son [Max] loves to play hockey and he's devastated by the comments being made."
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