Over the past couple of weeks there has been some very good news coming out of the junior hockey leagues in the U.S. and in Canada. USA Hockey is looking to ban fighting from its junior ranks and is hoping that Canadian junior hockey does the same.
At its recent winter meetings, USA Hockey recommended that fighting be eliminated at the Tier I, II and III levels. The proposal, which will go to a formal vote in June and could be implemented for the 2012-13 season, calls for National Collegiate Athletic Association-style sanctions to penalize fights. In the NCAA, a player who fights receives a game misconduct and an automatic suspension for the next game, along with increased suspensions for every additional fight.
USA Hockey has asked that Canadian junior hockey leagues work on eliminating fighting as well. The rationale is that player safety is paramount and that blows to the head from fighting could cause brain injuries in young players and result in lawsuits. Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations, said “everything that’s been going on in the game – player safety, the number of injuries and where fighting fits into that” was the impetus for taking a tougher stand on fighting. Johannson also stated, “We have a responsibility to safeguard the game at the minor levels. This is not the NHL, and that’s not a criticism of the NHL. These are kids under 20 playing hockey.”
Canadian hockey officials are willing to discuss the fighting issue and do what’s best for the players. Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson participated in a meeting with USA Hockey during the 2012 world junior tournament in Edmonton and said Thursday: “We want to remove fighting from the game, but we don’t want to create other violent acts that may occur. We’ll work hand in hand with USA Hockey.”
Getting the Canadian Hockey League to follow USA Hockey’s no-fighting plan might not be easy. The Ontario, Quebec and Western major junior leagues are associate members of Hockey Canada and govern themselves. Unfortunately these leagues feel that as prime feeders of talent for the NHL they need to allow on-ice fights as part of a player’s professional development. Ron Robison, commissioner of the Western Hockey League, made this statement, “From a WHL/CHL perspective, we feel strongly our role is to prepare players for the next level and as long as fighting is an element of that, we need to prepare the players so they can protect themselves,”
My opinion is that this is another example of the old guard unwilling to look at the game in a progressive manner. Shouldn’t a commissioner be concerned about the potential for injury of their young players by allowing fighting to remain at the junior level? And sending a seasoned fighter to the NHL might not be seen as “preparing them to protect themselves” but instead putting them into situations that are more likely to cause personal harm.
The positive news is that the U.S. and Canadian junior leagues are working together on the issue and using research to drive change, not relying on emotional decisions. Hockey Canada intends to share the results of a two-year Canadian Junior Hockey League study nearing completion with the American organization. Five Junior A men's hockey leagues in Canada were part of a pilot project intended to address blows to the head, dangerous hits, accumulated major penalties, instigators and unnecessary fighting. After the first year of the project, the CJHL said staged fights and multiple-fight situations were "all but eliminated" in the group that was allowed two fights before a misconduct. A report on the data from the study is expected to be ready for Hockey Canada's meetings in May and the organization intends to pass the report onto USA Hockey.
Progress at this level will have an ultimate impact on the NHL. Junior players from these leagues will be more disciplined because they will have learned to avoid fighting in order to stay in the line-up. The number of players who try to hang onto their dream of playing in the NHL through fighting will be drastically reduced. Junior teams won’t see the need to carry a designated tough guy, more prevalent amongst Canadian Hockey League teams. That means the NHL draft will have fewer enforcers to choose from. More importantly there will be a greater number of players that are comfortable in letting the referees police the game while they concentrate on playing it. Hockey without fighting will be ingrained in these players and that will carry over into the NHL.
Hopefully soon the junior hockey leagues will realize that it’s not part of the game.
Yahoo News – USA Hockey Wants to Reduce Violence in Junior Hockey