Never is this more evident than at the end of a series during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when players from opposing sides who have battled one another fiercely for up to seven games in the pursuit of glory go through a line, shaking hands and wishing each other well.
While those few moments might not resonate in the mind of an impressionable young hockey fan in quite the same way as the goals, hits and scraps that preceded it, there's an important lesson to be learned: The sport, particularly at the youth level, is meant to be fun, and the best way of accomplishing that for all involved is to foster a sense of sportsmanship and respect among all the players.
According to Jamie Macoun, a two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman who spent 16 seasons in the NHL playing for the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings and has gone on to coach youth hockey, it's not only an important task but a sometimes difficult one.
"It's an uphill battle, because one of the things in the NHL is you want guys to be tough, you want them to be fearless, you want them to be tenacious, but here, they've got to have fun, they've got to want to stay," said Macoun, who took time out from a Canadian Tire youth hockey clinic in Calgary back in February to talk to NHL.com.
"It's an uphill battle, because one of the things in the NHL is you want guys to be tough, you want them to be fearless, you want them to be tenacious, but here, they've got to have fun, they've got to want to stay." -- Former NHLer and youth hockey coach Jamie Macoun
MacDonald, a Hall of Famer and 500-goal scorer, assisted in one such session with Larry Pearson, whose three-plus decades of experience in coaching and education include working with Roger Neilson's Hockey Camp, in a series of games designed to stress teamwork and good sportsmanship.
Campers broke into groups and worked together to complete the various tasks -- including moving a tennis ball from on top of one cone to another via strings attached to a metal ring on which the tennis ball was balanced -- while MacDonald walked around providing guidance and frequent praise. ("That is awesome, you guys!")
"You first of all have to build trust in each other," MacDonald said, "and so when all of a sudden you're taking some of these skills and you all have to lift up a ball together and walk over to the next station and set that ball back down without dropping the ball or working together in a pipeline to get it to the far end and into the cup, those are awesome drills and it's so easy for kids to understand."
Showing the campers his hand, Pearson ended his session by stressing to the campers "lots of thumbs up" to show support for their teammates. Gesturing with his pointer finger, he said that when times get tough or someone makes a mistake, you don't single them out for criticism. ("On a real team, you don't play the blame game.") The ring finger symbolizes the commitment required to be a winner, while the pinky finger is a reminder to always watch out for the little guy and be there for players who might not be at the skill level you are.
"These lessons are transferrable to school, playing sports or going out into the workplace," Pearson said. "It's like that old saying: 'Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.'"
Kids will be kids, of course, and whether out of frustration, willfulness or sheer rambunctious nature, unwanted actions and outbursts are bound to occur. How do you handle an incident of unsportsmanlike behavior in a young player? By addressing it in a timely fashion and drawing clear guidelines as to what will and won't be accepted on a team.
"It's no different than parenting," Berezan said. "If you let your kids get away with stuff that you don't like for a long time and then you try to curb it, it's difficult. Early on it's easier. If a child is disrespectful, if the behavior of a child is selfish, all the things that have to do with teamwork, if that behavior is not right, fix it. Acknowledge it and do something about it.
"And if you do it in the earlier years and you get at it, make sure it stops, it's pretty easy to break kids [of bad habits] when they're young. If you let it go along until they're 13 and then you try to fix it, forget it. It's done."