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.”