Saturday, 23 February 2013

Update on Fighting in Junior Hockey

Back in September I posted an article that highlighted rule changes by various junior hockey leagues in an effort to reduce fighting.  The OHL, CJHL and USHL were the most progressive while WHL and QMJHL made little to no change in their rules.  Although their seasons are not over yet I thought I would provide a quick snapshot on progress.

You can read the entire post - Junior Hockey Shows Leadership – to get a good overview of what was implemented.  In summary the OHL announced that any player who has more than 10 fights earns an automatic two-game suspension for every additional bout and after the 15th fight the suspension is the same plus the team is fined $1,000.  The CJHL uses similar rules except the suspensions start at 5 fights.  The WHL response to fighting was more limited as they attempted to address staged fights at the beginning of a game.  There were no new rules announced by QMJHL specifically related to fighting.

I noted in my previous article that I was impressed with the approach the USHL was taking.  The new rules implemented at the beginning of the season focused on player safety and reducing dangerous types of penalties.  The USHL identified certain minor penalties as dangerous, such as elbowing, head contact, kneeing, etc., and monitored players who accumulated these along with major penalties – both fighting and non-fighting.  These players are brought in for meetings with the Commissioner’s office with an eye toward early intervention, and may be subject to supplementary discipline.

So how have these new rules and initiatives impacted the Junior Hockey leagues?   I couldn’t access the statistics on fighting majors and overall PIMs for CJHL but the chart below summarizes those numbers for the other leagues.

We have a reduction across the board in the Canadian leagues, in both fighting majors and penalty minutes.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the OHL, with the most aggressive initiatives, has more significant decreases.   The drop in both fights and PIMs was consistent with the level of effort for WHL (minor rule changes targeting fighting) and QMJHL (no announced rules).  I don’t believe that the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization for OHL, WHL and QMJHL, will rest after these results and we should expect tougher rules and discipline.  David Branch, President of the CHL, has publically stated his commitment to reducing or eliminating fighting from junior hockey.

The USHL statistics were a surprise to me, particularly because I had high hopes for the impact of their more progressive approach to dangerous hockey plays and fighting.  Unlike the other leagues they experienced an increase in both the reported categories.  To better understand the reasons behind these increases I dropped a note to the USHL and asked them for their input on these results.

I received a response from Brian Werger, Director of Communications and Public Relations, and Skip Prince, President and Commissioner.  With respect to the statistics noted above, they provided the following explanations:

  • The actual fight count may be due to a tougher standard in response to dropping the gloves.  This season the referees are calling fighting majors where in previous years they might have been assessed as roughing or delay of game.
  • They feel that the PIM per game slight increase is due to the fact that referees are calling games with a tighter standard and giving stiffer penalty calls to infractions in the dangerous category (game ejections, game misconducts). 

Therefore this year is likely a year of adjustment and as players get used to how games are now called going forward they should see decreases in fighting and overall PIM.  I still believe that the USHL approach, focused on dangerous penalties, is one that should be studied by all junior leagues and at the professional level.  In one communication to the USHL I made the observation that increased discipline and suspensions for these penalties would remove a lot of the motivation for players to take revenge.  In their response I appreciated that both Brian and Skip provided me with additional detail on how committed they are to this initiative and that people understood that it was undertaken to improve player safety.

From Brian Werger:

I wanted to make sure to address the notion that the whole reason for the USHL Player Safety Initiative was to reduce fighting. Not specifically the case. The focus of the initiative was to reduce the amount of “dumb and dangerous” penalties that led to greater risk of injury for players. Infractions such as checking from behind, elbowing, head contact, boarding, etc.

In terms of fighting as it relates to the Player Safety Initiative, several measures have been implemented to make that aspect of the game safer. Players are not allowed to deliberately remove their helmets before engaging in an altercation. If so, they are automatically done for that game and subject to additional penalty. Greater measures have been implemented to get rid of the pre-meditated fight and stiffer penalties have been added for players who accumulate certain numbers of fighting major penalties and those who engage in the “line brawl”.
I do know that injuries related to fighting are down compared to previous seasons. In our research from previous seasons, we discovered that the vast majority of injuries in the USHL were not caused by fighting, but the measures that have been taken this season have reduced injuries from that category.

I think we have come a long way but know we still have a long way to go. We like the direction we are going with the initiative and the progress that has been made, but it is not a one-year plan and we will adjust our approach in some areas to fine-tune the process and make the game as safe as possible for these young men. Our goal and duty is to deliver them to NCAA hockey and the NHL as bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, better players – but also as healthy players.

From Skip Prince:

We worked with Brendan Shanahan in developing the Player Safety Initiative, and it may be one of the most important things we've done.  The USHL mandate is to get these future stars to the next level - Division I NCAA hockey as an opportunity for virtually all of them, the NHL for many.

To do that, the mission is not only to make them bigger, stronger, faster and smarter (on and off the ice) than when they get here, but healthy and ready.  Games lost to injury are a failure for us.

You're right about fighting.  It is most often not an issue in and of itself here, but the canary in the mine, if you will, for other and more damaging issues in the game - the cheap shot, the flying elbow, the line brawl.  The things the game reverts to when the quality of play declines.

That's not an issue with our quality of player and play, or shouldn't be.  We try to use the word "respect" a lot, as one of the fundamental elements of hockey and absolutely essential for our guys to buy into in a sport which has been and always will be intrinsically tough and ultimately dangerous.  Keeping the intensity of the players high, but channeling it away from the "dumb and dangerous," is yielding hockey players who are just as fierce, but playing the game better, respecting that guy on the boards who is in the other sweater -   odds are, a future teammate or a foe at a higher level down the line.

I’ve stated in the past that reducing fighting in hockey requires more effort than simply assessing an automatic game misconduct – although that’s a good start.  Fighting is a symptom of cheap shots and overly aggressive hockey hits.  As long as that element stays in the game then players will demand the privilege of taking revenge. The USHL Player Safety Initiative addresses that issue, although it’s not specifically the objective.  It should result in more exciting hockey, less dirty play and a safer environment for players in what is inherently a dangerous sport.  I’ll be looking forward to future updates on their progress.


  1. if you're so against fighting, find a different sport to watch, you fucking loser.

  2. Serious buddy..... lets give the players foam sticks and pucks as well, lets take all contact out of the game and ice is slippery so we will change it to a padded surface, change skates to shoes and at the end of the year, we declare everyone winners.

    Hockey is being ruined a little bit every year and its people like you on a mission for "eliminating" something that is a part of hockey and always will be is sad.

  3. Great stuff Paul. Alex Bere and Anonymous are just confused and pathetic.