Ever since amateur hockey leagues started cracking down on hits to the head more than a decade ago, there was a major disconnect in rule books:
Bodychecks to the head were outlawed and stiff sanctions enacted, but punches to an opponent’s head were tacitly allowed. Sure, fighting was penalized with a five-minute major but players weren’t tossed from the game and supplemental discipline was the exception rather than the rule.
Amateur hockey organizations have already taken steps to close that loophole and one of major junior hockey’s most influential leaders wants his leagues to follow suit.
Canadian Hockey League commissioner David Branch told the New York Times on Monday that “the appetite is there” to eliminate fighting. Branch wasn’t available on Tuesday to discuss what type of rule changes could be proposed to ban fighting, but told the Times that “the time is certainly right to move forward.”
Hockey Canada already has a blueprint in place to reduce fighting from junior A hockey — one step below major junior. Two years ago, Hockey Canada mandated that in the name of player safety, all instances of fighting would result in a game misconduct. The rule was in place across the board, from youth leagues to junior A.
“You can have sanctions, you can have radar traps set up on the highway and people will still speed,” Hockey Canada vice president of hockey development Paul Carson said.
“The reality is what are the deterrents to keep players from engaging in a fight and totally staying away from it in the game?”
The same rule hasn’t yet been adopted in major junior hockey. The three leagues that make up the CHL — the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — have all taken steps to reduce hits to the head. But those leagues still make a distinction between a bodycheck and a punch.
WHL commissioner Ron Robison believes further study is required before fighting is banned outright. According to the studies he’s seen, fighting isn’t “a significant factor” when it comes to concussions.
“Quite frankly the No. 1 issue in the game is not fighting. In our view it’s more concussions and related injuries that occur as a result of head blows,” Robison said. “That’s our focus primarily, not as much on the fighting side of things.”
There’s a case to be made that fighting isn’t only a part of hockey’s tradition, but that it’s an important part of the game.
Mark Lamb played in the NHL for a decade in the 1980s and 90s and now is the coach and general manager of the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos. The Broncos lead the WHL in fighting majors with 84, according to hockeyfights.com.
Lamb said he understands the need to keep players safe, but doesn’t think banning fighting is the way to make that happen.
“It’s been in hockey as long as anyone can remember and it does serve a purpose,” he said. “I know they’re talking about getting it out for the head injuries and just for safety reasons but, (speaking) for myself, I think there’s a place for it. I think it’s an aggressive sport, that it’s exciting, it’s part of the gamesmanship of the game.”
Windsor Spitfires winger Ty Bilcke leads the OHL in penalty minutes with 214 this season in 54 games and according to hockeyfights.com he’s been in 36 scraps this year. He doesn’t think it’s possible to eliminate fighting from the game.
“It’s always going to be there,” he said earlier this season. “Fighting is not going to be abolished from hockey, because guys are going to be upset with guys.”
Junior A leagues in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Maritimes — feeder leagues for both the CHL and the U.S. college system — took Hockey Canada’s anti-fighting rules one step further, enacting stiffer penalties including suspensions for players who fight more than once, as part of a two-year pilot project. Ontario didn’t adopt the stricter penalties so its league can act as a control group in the study.
The junior A leagues and Hockey Canada will have data on the effectiveness of the new policy in reducing or eliminating fighting by May, and Carson said once it’s analyzed it could result in further rule changes.
This season Hockey Canada also instituted a zero-tolerance policy on contact to the head. Under the new guidelines, any incidental contact to the head is a two-minute penalty and any contact deemed intentional — no matter how minor — is at least a four-minute infraction.
“Players started to really pay attention and it really did have a bit of a cultural shift in terms of that macho nature in scrums in front of the net and scrums in the corner,” Carson said. “We have seen a real positive shift.”
With files from the Windsor
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