Saturday, 22 September 2012

Junior Hockey Shows Leadership

This week the OHL made a major rules announcement designed to put an end to one-dimensional fighters.  But they weren’t the only junior league implementing progressive measures that will reduce fighting in the game.  The USHL, CJHL and WHL all had press releases recently with a similar direction, if perhaps different approaches.

The OHL got the lion’s share of press for their rules which are intended to crack down on serial fighters (reported here).  Under the new rules, a player who has more than 10 fights earns an automatic two-game suspension for every additional bout until his 15th fight.  After 15 fights they will be banned two games per fight and the team fined a $1,000.  If a player is deemed the instigator, and he’s had 11 or more fights, it’s a four-game ban.

This rule is clearly targeted at the one-dimensional player who is on the roster simply to drop the gloves and cause mayhem on the ice.  There will be no impact on more than 90% of the players in the OHL and those who are seen as goons will have clean up their act and depend on hockey skills to make an impact on scouts.  Even Ty Blicke, who led the OHL in fights with 37 last season, sounds like he will focus on playing more and dropping the gloves less.

“I stand by the league’s decision,” said the Windsor Spitfires forward.  “I’m actually excited about it. It’s a challenge for me to show people who have been calling me words like goon, that I’m a hockey player first.

A few journalists pointed out that you could have teams going after an opposition player who is sitting at 10 fights in an effort to goad him into dropping the gloves and earning a suspension.  I think that’s unlikely because that player will be protected as long as he is not the instigator.  The new OHL rule states that if you are not a willing combatant, and the other player is assessed an instigator penalty, then the fight doesn’t count towards his totals.  If the player on the edge is goaded into starting the fight then he will be penalized and suspended.  So if he has no self-control then he deserves the suspension.  I think this part of the new rule has some benefits as it will be more likely that refs will call instigator penalties in order to protect those who are attacked.   The instigator rule is not called as often as is deserved but I think you’ll see an increase in its application this season.

Meanwhile the CJHL has also toughened a similar rule to the one just rolled out by the OHL (reported here).   First implemented in the 2010-11 season the CJHL  rules in the Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, Maritime and Saskatchewan leagues have called for a two-game suspension to kick in after 7 fights.  A change for this year has reduced that limit to 5 fights and a second instigator during the season also triggers an automatic ban.

The leagues involved in the trial included the AJHL, BCHL, MJHL, MHL and SJHL while the CJHL's other five leagues have an automatic ejection for fighting.  A year before the CJHL rule kicked in there were 1.02 fights per game across the five leagues which signed on for the pilot project and 140 players received at least 6 fighting majors.  There was an immediate impact in '10-11 as only 13 players received a suspension for exceeding the fight threshold but the number increased to 50 last season, prompting the league to lower the threshold to 5 fights.

While I applaud CJHL president Kirk Lamb for making the rule tougher I think his positioning in the press was ill prepared.  He stated that he believes the tougher rules will reduce fighting to what it was initially intended for — as a way to stick up for teammates.  I don’t believe that any hockey executive should be comfortable with the position that revenge is acceptable in the sport. 

The same day as the OHL announcement saw new rules from the USHL that was targeted at both fighting and violence (reported here).   The USHL identified certain minor penalties as dangerous, such as elbowing, head contact, kneeing, etc.  These will be monitor and reviewed along with major penalties – both fighting and non-fighting – throughout the course of the season.  Players accumulating multiple penalties will be notified and addressed by the Commissioner’s office with an eye toward early intervention and education, and multiple penalties in any category will be subject to supplementary discipline.

I like this approach for several reasons.  It should identify those players who have a tendency for violent play and not just goons who get into fights.  By tracking those plays that are classified as dangerous it should isolate players who are focused on causing harm versus playing the game of hockey.  I like the approach of the league getting involved early when a pattern develops with a player and calling them in for a review.  If that type of enforcement  is consistent then players will start to change their behaviour or find their junior careers ending early.  I hope that the USHL also releases an update after the season on the impact of this new rule.  I’d make the assumption that fighting should decrease and I would like to see if there is any change in other dangerous minor penalties.  I would also assume that the league will become safer overall.  Partly because of the USHL looking at all types of infractions in a collective manner, and because it’s my belief that fighting causes more violence contrary to the popular myth of “enforcement”.

The WHL also made a minor announcement that staged fights will result in an immediate suspension (reported here).  This is the official text from their website:

Adoption of a staged fighting rule.  Should a fight occur following a face-off during a game, it will be considered a staged fight.  Should a staged fight occur during a pre-season, regular season or playoff game, the players involved shall each receive an automatic game misconduct in addition to the major penalty.  Should one player clearly initiate or instigate the fight, only that player will receive the game misconduct in addition to a minor penalty  for instigating the fight.  Should the linesmen intervene and prevent the fight from starting, the players involved will each receive misconduct penalties.

I’m not sure how much of an impact this will have on the WHL, the junior league with the highest fights per game.  What if they simply wait 10 seconds or 20 seconds and then fight.   Is that staged?   This appears to be a weak response by the WHL to some of the more progressive moves by the other 3 leagues.  I’m somewhat removed from regular articles on this league, something I should work on this season, but it appears to be stuck firmly in the fighting culture and lagging  behind. 

Junior hockey is moving in the right direction and I don’t think they’re finished.  We should expect to see penalties increased, fighting limits reduced and suspensions lengthened over the next few years.   Hockey fans that want to see fighting banned from the sport would like to see a more rapid progression, and perhaps for some of the junior hockey executive leadership to rub off on some NHL GMs and coaches.  I mean if they all agree that fighting will be taken out of the game eventually, why not just take action immediately?   I guess we’ll settle for a slow evolution, led by the young teaching the old.



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