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What’s often not discussed is the fact fighting remains far more prevalent in junior hockey than the NHL. (Peter Power/The Globe and mail)
What’s often not discussed is the fact fighting remains far more prevalent in junior hockey than the NHL. (Peter Power/The Globe and mail)

It’s long past time fighting was knocked out of junior hockey Add to ...

The response was overwhelming, and it included many fans who were arguing for the same thing.

They are tired of seeing fighting in hockey, especially in junior hockey, among minors who aren’t being paid.

Last week’s story on Robert Frid – a former London Knight and long-time minor-league enforcer who is disabled at 41 due to the many head injuries he suffered – resonated more than anything I have written in years. We received a flood of e-mails and comments, including dozens from readers wanting to donate to help Frid, whose only income is $700 a month in government disability. Within days, a campaign was started by former Ontario Hockey League fighter Mike Mazzuca to raise money on his behalf.

Life after 75 concussions: A former hockey enforcer shares his struggles (The Globe and Mail)

Several of Frid’s former teammates, as well as other retired fighters who are struggling with their own health problems and financial issues, contacted the paper. Others in the hockey world – scouts, agents and even players currently playing pro – also wrote in and said they wanted to see change.

“Time to end fighting in junior hockey,” reader Julie Mills commented on the story. “Parents and players are too starry-eyed to say no.”

“How does it make sense to allow fighting in junior hockey?” wrote one NHL player agent who asked that his name not be used.

“Sometimes it’s 16-year-olds fighting 19- and 20-year-olds.”

They have a point.

It’s true that fighting in junior is well down from when Frid played in the wild 1990s. There have been 0.5 fights per game in the Canadian Hockey League this year – one every two games – which means fights are four times less common than they were 20 years ago.

Some of that shift is thanks to increasingly stringent rules on frequent fighters. Players who fight 10 times in a season in the OHL, for example, are now suspended for two games, with more penalties for fights beyond that. Players who drop the gloves twice in the same game are given game misconducts.

And fights are stopped if players lose their helmets.

What’s often not discussed is the fact fighting remains far more prevalent in junior hockey than the NHL. The average NHL team has had about 18 fights. The average junior team is at more than 30.

The Prince George Cougars in the WHL, for example, have had 70 fights this season. The most punch-happy NHL teams – the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets – have had only 35 each.

In all, there have been nearly 1,000 fights in the CHL already this season, which is nearly three times the number in the NHL.

It’s far too many.

With what we now know about head injuries, there is already a strong argument that fighting should be removed or greatly curtailed in hockey at all levels. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the degenerative brain disease made infamous by the NFL – has been found in the brains of several former NHL fighters who died young.

Neurologists also believe young athletes such as junior hockey players are more susceptible to concussions and more likely to hide them in order to keep playing. “Fighting is certainly to be discouraged, especially at young ages,” Boston University’s Dr. Robert Cantu told the Boston Globe five years ago.

Even CHL president David Branch – who has championed many of the recent rule changes to wipe out staged fighting – has acknowledged he is uncertain whether it should be in his leagues at all.

“I’m not defending fighting,” Branch said. “I don’t know if there’s any place for fighting in our game.”

But the CHL also hasn’t pushed to eliminate it, certainly not to the extent officials have in the United States. In 2014, after 18-year-old Dylan Chanter hit his head on the ice and began convulsing after a fight, USA Hockey added an additional 10-minute misconduct for fights in its Tier I and II junior leagues (USHL and NAHL).

Fighting dropped immediately by more than 60 per cent. The USHL now averages only one fight for every six or seven games.

According to hockeyfights.com, the leading fighter in the USHL has had only three fights this season. That’s a world away from the WHL, where Prince George’s Colby McAuley has fought 16 times, or the OHL, where Owen Sound’s Jacob Friend has fought 12.

He is 18 years old.

“That is somebody making money off of this kid bare-knuckle fighting,” TSN’s Gary Lawless said on his Winnipeg-based radio show last week. “They’re selling tickets for that. At the end of the day, the permissive attitude that allows that to continue means that they’re okay with it. That’s got to stop.”

There are no indications it will. Branch argues that fighting is only the third-highest cause of concussions in the CHL – behind unforgiving glass and boards in arenas and illegal hits to the head – and that the WHL, OHL and QMJHL have been some of the most progressive leagues in addressing head injuries.

But they are not progressive on fighting. They’ve missed taking the easiest and most obvious step, one that wouldn’t affect game play or their role as a developmental league at all. There’s no reason for there to be more fighting among teenage players than in the pros, especially not when the majority of those who are routinely dropping the gloves are undrafted and unlikely to ever make a living in the game.

The fact it remains this prevalent is an anachronism from the brutal rock ’em sock ’em era that players such as Frid grew up in, as fighting has almost disappeared from every reputable pro league. There’s no fighting in college or university hockey, overseas or in international competitions. There’s very little left in the NHL.

Why is Canadian junior hockey – where the players are some of the least compensated and the most vulnerable – still holding on?

There’s no good answer to that.

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Footage shows fight between ref and Ontario junior hockey player (CTVNews Video)

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