Thursday, 1 March 2012

Different League, Same Culture

This week it was widely reported that the junior hockey leagues in Canada are moving steadily to eliminate fighting from their organizations.   Lots of media outlets picked up the story and the majority of the articles were positive about the change.  However, just a few days later, some of the real culture was starting to leak out from under the top level of league management as junior coaches and players added their voices to the discussion.

I don’t think you can underestimate the leadership that Bob Nicholson and David Branch are showing by announcing their intentions to ban fighting, and the continued battle that they will face during their annual meeting in May when the changes will be discussed.  The culture of fighting in hockey runs deep and is resistant to change, relying on the argument of tradition, accountability and “the code”.   Journalists are now going out to local teams that are due to be impacted by these proposed new rules and collecting opinions on the reports, and the culture is evident in the interviews.

One of those interviews was with Vancouver Giants head coach, Don Hay (full article available here) whose team plays in the Western Hockey League.  His comments were far from supportive of the league executive and indicate that there is still some work to do before the proposed rules become firm.  Here are some excerpts from that story along with my comments.

"We follow the lead of the NHL," Hay said Wednesday in a low-key but passionate interview. "If they have fighting, I don't think it's fair to our players to not have them exposed to it. I mean, if you have no fighting in our league, then all of the sudden you're exposed to fighting at the NHL level, that makes it tough for your players to go into that league. The fighting aspect of their skill package could help them make a living at the next level."

I have a lot issues with the statement above.  First of all I think that all junior league officials, in particular the coaches that push players to develop and compete, should first be concerned with the safety and well-being of the players under their care.   They shouldn’t put them into a violent situation right now in preparation for the very small likelihood that they will get drafted and ultimately make it to the NHL, and then have to fight one of the minority of pros who actually drop their gloves..  The level of fighting in junior is well above what you see in the majors which means you are encouraging hundreds of enforcers who are 16 to 20 years of age, in order to train them for a handful of roster spots.

Comments that came out of the junior coaching ranks last summer, after the deaths of 3 NHL enforcers, were along the lines of, “these kids know the risks when they drop the gloves in order to get drafted”.   Those words, to me, sounded like they were trying to distance themselves from any responsibility of directing teenagers to become fighters in order to make the NHL.  Now Hay is saying that players should not be deprived of their opportunity to perfect the craft of punching another player in face.  How about if every junior coach sat down with every player and explained that for every long career of a Marty McSorley there are likely 10 more that never make it out of the minors or play more than a few games at the top level.  Maybe have medical experts come in and explain the consequences of blows to the head and long term effects of multiple concussions.  That’s preparation for a career of an NHL enforcer.

Another comment from the article:

Although the pros are paid, and the juniors play for little more than room and board, Hay likened the situation to an apprentice electrician, or any other occupation where trainees have to face the full reality of their jobs. Not everyone in hockey fights but, if you are a hard-nosed player, you had better be prepared.

"If you want to be an electrician, you have to learn the process and go through it so that when you get your ticket, you can be a full-time electrician," Hay explained. "I think, as a player in junior hockey, it's part of learning to be a professional player. Not all players are going to fight. That's their right. You don't have to fight in junior hockey. Players are not made to fight but, if it's part of their skill package, I think they should have that option."

I think his analogy would be more accurate if the apprentice electrician had to fight with the plumber in order to do his job.  You know like, “Hey, Guido, you can’t put that waterline there, I gotta run my wires in that space.  That’s against the code.”  And then he starts flapping his arms to shake off his work gloves, “You wanna go, huh, you wanna go….”   That wouldn’t be allowed on the job site. 

Fighting is not part of the game – if it was then there would not be any penalties for engaging in a fight.   As the article points out, close to 45% of all future NHL players come out of college or Europe where fighting is not allowed, and those players adapt very well.

Hay conceded that he would change his stance:

"If the National Hockey League is going to take it out of their game, then we should take it out of ours because there is no point to it," Hay continued. "The NHL will set the standards for the other leagues, whether it's the American League or our league.”

I suspect that Hay is relying on the likelihood that the NHL will be very slow to show any leadership on this issue, because the culture there is just as ingrained, so his statement is safe for a few years.

There are a couple of things that I hope come out of this initiative to eliminate fighting in junior hockey.  One is that Nicholson and Branch are successful in pushing through the new rules and that fighting is banned for next season.  The result will be less injuries and, if my analysis in past posts is correct, less penalties and violence overall.  The other benefit will come from the study of the junior game over the next few years as I am confident that it will be better hockey with less cheap shots because the players have to show more discipline in order to stay on the ice.  With those two things accomplished the culture can begin to change because we will be dealing with real data and not some perception of what might happen.

Recommended reading:  Junior Hockey on Cusp of aRevolution: Trying to Stop Fighting

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