Sherry Bassin just wanted to see if his players could skate, shoot and play it smart. He wasn’t interested in how fast they could yank an opponent’s sweater over his head. So he decreed there would be no fighting among the teenagers trying out for his Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.
You would have thought Bassin had spit on the Memorial Cup. Some hockey types told the Otters’ managing partner and general manager he was sadly out of sync. Worse was the reaction from the players’ mothers and fathers.
“I had parents buzzing around saying, ‘You’re going to take away the effectiveness of my son,’” Bassin said, the disbelief still evident in his voice. “They’d say, ‘What do you mean? My kid’s a tough kid.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not going to be fighting his teammates, I’ll tell you that.’”
Fighting in hockey, even junior hockey, is as old as an Eddie Shore helmet. It’s equal parts brutal, disturbing and riveting. When a fight starts on the ice, emotions spike throughout the arena and everyone locks in on the spectacle. As Tyrell Goulbourne of the Kelowna Rockets describes it, it’s a matter of instinctive survival (“just hanging on and throwing punches”) juiced by “a lot of adrenalin.”
But the present debate over fighting has to do with player safety and whether teenaged boys should be allowed to beat on one another with bare fists. David Branch, president of the Canadian Hockey League and commissioner of the OHL, announced last month he will ask the OHL governors to adopt more severe sanctions against fighting. While the CHL is composed of the three major junior leagues – the OHL, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – each sets its own rules.
Branch’s plans for the OHL are likely to be voted in. However, he will face a challenge convincing the WHL to follow suit. The WHL has long prided itself on prepping players for the pro game. With a 72-game regular season and arduous travel, the WHL produces battle-ready prospects in more ways than one.
Traditionally, fighting is more common in the WHL, which had more fights per game in two of the past three seasons than the other two leagues. In the 2011-12 regular season, there were 1.99 fights per game in the WHL, compared to 1.84 in the OHL and 1.47 in the QMJHL.
The QMJHL’s official position on fighting is not known. League commissioner Gilles Courteau declined an interview request. Russ Farwell, general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds, said the WHL tries to “use NHL rules, play an NHL style” and that taking fighting out of the game was something “we’d be very careful about before we did it.
“There’s so much less fighting in the game now,” he said. “The head injuries and concussions are not coming from fighting. [Fighting]is not an issue for me. If the NHL told us not to do it, we’d look at it. But it’s nowhere on our agenda.
“It’s probably a perfect rule for Ontario.”
Former NHL goalie Olaf Kolzig is co-owner of the Tri-City Americans, the WHL team he played for. He believes fighting fills a necessary void.
“If you have guys who go out and give head shots, you can’t eliminate that if you don’t have the threat of being held accountable,” Kolzig said.
Branch and WHL commissioner Ron Robison say the NHL has never, even subliminally, encouraged the junior leagues to resist attempts to ban fighting. While there is evidence some teams embrace fighting – the Windsor Spitfires had the most major penalties for fighting in two of the last three OHL seasons and the Vancouver Giants were among the WHL’s top four in the last three seasons – Branch and Robison are skeptical that some junior-team operators want to keep fights in the game because they sell tickets.
“Do we really need it to sell our game?” Branch said. “No, we really don’t need it. I know that arguably the most significant junior hockey event is the world junior tournament. We also [have]the annual MasterCard Memorial Cup. There’s no fighting at these events.”
Those who’ve had to stand on skates and throw punches want things to stay unchanged. Jevon Desautels spent four seasons with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs and averaged 163 penalty minutes per year. He was drafted by the Washington Capitals but went on to play for the Calgary Dinos of Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
No one told him he had to fight; he simply knew what to do.
“Being a protective guy, I wanted to be there for my teammates,” Desautels said. “Fighting was the next progression. I think I got in eight fights my first year and six or seven were for my teammates.”
Ask Desautels why fighting should remain in hockey and he’ll tell you about his time in the CIS, where fighting is allowed but strongly punished. (A fight results in a game misconduct and an automatic suspension with escalating suspensions for additional fights.) “In all my years in junior I never saw a guy tear his ACL [anterior cruciate ligament, located in the knee] I got to the CIS and in five years I saw five, six guys tear their ACL, including myself,” he said. “I got 35 games [through rehabilitation]and the other guy who stuck out his knee and clipped mine got two minutes. It would have been nice for one of my teammates to be able to drop the gloves and say that’s not going to be tolerated.”
No one leading the charge against fighting in junior hockey is looking to eliminate it from the game. Branch said the overriding concern is player safety, especially when it comes to concussions.
“You’re not getting rid of fighting,” Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, said. “There’ll just be stiffer suspensions for people who do fight.”
Robison, who is not part of the anti-fighting movement, says WHL statistics show fighting is the cause of less than 10 per cent of the concussions sustained by players in the 2011-12 regular season. Branch agrees that fights are not behind most of the concussions, but makes the point that it’s worth reducing all the causes of concussions.
There is also the issue of 16-year-olds facing bigger and stronger 19-year-olds. It does not happen often and all three leagues discourage such fights. The OHL tells its teams they cannot allow fights in training camp if a 16-year-old is participating.
“Even if there aren’t 16-year-olds out there, I don’t want fighting,” Bassin said. “It’s totally unnecessary. I only have a window of so many days [in training camp]and I’m interested in assessing their skill level.”
Bassin, too, says the junior leagues have bigger problems than fighting. He is concerned that just as the NHL playoffs showed recently, today’s players “hit to hurt,” which leads to concussions, and that when a player makes a clean bodycheck, he is often challenged to a fight.
The latter concern is shared by Branch, who says his focus is not so much an outright ban on fighting but a gradual elimination of players who do nothing but fight. This will not be good news for the Spitfires, who led the OHL this season with 101 fighting majors, 17 more than the second-ranked Plymouth Whalers, or Ty Bilcke, the Spitfires’ 17-year-old rookie. He had five points and 37 fighting majors in 62 games.
“As the game has gotten faster, the guys who can only fight don’t last,” Desautels said. “But [NHLers]Chris Neil and Milan Lucic are still really effective. They do a lot more than fight. That’s what the game has evolved to.”
“I’m not going out there on the ice looking for fights,” added Goulbourne, who fought 17 times last season for Kelowna. “But things happen and I’d rather take a punch in the face than a hit to the head from behind.”
USA Hockey will vote in June on a plan to heavily penalize fighting in junior hockey at the Tier I, II and III levels beginning this fall and has asked Canadian hockey officials to do the same. The rule changes Branch wants the OHL’s 20 governors to adopt are aimed at players who habitually engage in fights. Also targeted are players who fight someone who throws a clean bodycheck, a practice that has crept into both junior hockey and the NHL over the last two decades.
Branch did not want to get into detail about his proposals, but he indicated they will involve lowering the number of fights that trigger suspensions, and increasing the number of games fighters will miss.
All three leagues took action against a recent phenomenon in junior: players challenging others to fight in a coming game through social media like Facebook and Twitter. Now, in the WHL, players who engage in fights at the start of any game or period get a game misconduct and one-game suspension. There are similar rules in the other two leagues.
But even Branch is willing to concede the argument of some of his opponents that some fighting is necessary to discourage some players from using their sticks, elbows and feet as weapons.
“I understand that,” Branch said. “I feel that point does have merit. That’s one of the challenges we all have: how we keep a healthy balance as to how our game is played.”