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Montreal Canadiens' Mike Brown fights with Buffalo Sabres' Nicolas Deslauriers during NHL hockey action in Montreal on March 10, 2016. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Montreal Canadiens' Mike Brown fights with Buffalo Sabres' Nicolas Deslauriers during NHL hockey action in Montreal on March 10, 2016. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

End to fighting would not make hockey a safer game Add to ...

As the majority owner of the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, I am responsible for the 23 young men who play for our team. It is my job to ensure that our players reach their potential as players, have access to scholarships when they leave the QMJHL and participate in a league that is as safe as an elite hockey league can be.

The success of recent Moosehead players, including four players selected in the top-10 picks over the past three NHL drafts, attests to our commitment to developing our players.

Every Halifax Moosehead graduate is provided with scholarships from the QMJHL and our club to fully pay his tuition, room and board and books at any university in Canada. This academic year we are providing scholarships for 21 recent graduates of the Mooseheads.

When it comes to the safety of our players, I have less control than I do over our hockey development or scholarship programs. Elite hockey, whether played at the major junior, collegiate or professional level, is a fast and physical game.

For the past several years there have been commentators advocating for the elimination of fighting in professional and major junior hockey. Eliminating fighting or passing rules that severely limit the occurrence of fights in major junior hockey would make the game more dangerous for our players.

I have been a hockey fan for five decades. My hockey-playing résumé includes three years in the OHL and 15 years in the NHL. I spent five years as general manager of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes and 13 years with the Halifax Mooseheads. During my time in hockey, I cannot think of two more credible voices to address the issue of fighting than Bobby Orr and Jarome Iginla.

Bobby Orr devotes a lengthy section of his recent autobiography to the merits of fighting in hockey. Orr says there is an important role for fighting in pro-level hockey. He considers “pro level” to be “all professional ranks plus the highest levels in Canadian junior hockey.” He opines, “But I would say this about the place of fighting in hockey. I believe that especially at the pro level you need to be held accountable for your actions, and the threat of a fight can accomplish that.”

Highly skilled teammates of mine, like Mats Naslund in Montreal and Mike Modano in Minnesota, were able to display their considerable talent because opponents knew there was a price to pay for targeting a star player.

Jarome Iginla echoes Bobby Orr’s stance: “Fighting holds players accountable for their actions on the ice,” he wrote in a 2013 Sports Illustrated article.

The “actions on the ice” that concern me are those that increase the likelihood of a traumatic spinal cord injury or make concussions more prevalent. I conducted a thorough investigation of the academic literature on concussions in hockey and it is instructive.

A 2013 study titled Bodychecking Rules and Concussion in Elite Hockey endeavoured to determine whether the NHL’s new head contact rule was effective in reducing the occurrence of concussions.

The study analyzed approximately 1,410 NHL games during 30 randomly selected weeks between the 2009-10 and 2011-12 seasons. It found that 8.8 concussions or suspected concussions occurred per 100 NHL games. Of these injuries, 0.8 of a concussion per 100 games was attributed to fighting and the other eight were caused by a variety of means, the most common of which were “Bodychecking with head contact” and “Bodychecking with no head contact.”

The study found that a player was more likely to suffer a concussion by getting hit in the face by a puck than by fighting.

It is clear that we could immediately eliminate the 0.8 of a fight per 100 games if fighting were banned from the NHL. But if Bobby Orr, Jarome Iginla and common sense are to be believed, the elimination of fighting will lead to more reckless and dangerous actions on the ice. Those other eight concussions per 100 games are going to increase, perhaps dramatically.

Many of the mega-sized fighters fighting in the 2009-2012 period are no longer on NHL rosters, so it’s not unrealistic to think that those concussion figures are lower today. Furthermore, in today’s junior or NHL game, a player has a choice whether or not he wants to accept an invitation to fight. Nobody is asked his permission before being blindsided or hit from behind.

A 2001 study (Concussions in hockey: there is cause for concern) stated succinctly, “Fighting is not a major cause of concussion, although other illegal actions such as elbowing are.”

Another study released in 1999 (Head and Neck Injuries Among Ice Hockey Players Wearing Full Face Shields vs Half Face Shields) analyzed head and neck injuries suffered during the 1997-98 season by Canadian university players. The study documented 79 concussions among the 22 participating teams. Seventy-nine concussions is an astronomical number of head injuries for teams that played 26-game or 28-game regular seasons. The university players suffered concussions at a rate at least two times the rate suffered by the NHL players in the study noted above. There is no fighting in Canadian university hockey.

The debate about fighting in major junior hockey will continue. For those of us charged with the safety and well-being of the young men on our teams this is not an academic exercise. We should never allow rules to be implemented that will put our players at increased risk of serious injury. We have a better and safer game when players are held accountable by their peers and fighting remains an important part of our sport.

Bobby Smith is majority owner of the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, a former No. 1 draft pick, Calder Trophy winner, Stanley Cup winner, and served as general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes from 1996-2000.

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