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Jared Knight of the London Knights fights with Colin Miller of the Soo Greyhounds during a bench clearing brawl at the end of their OHL game in London, Ont., in this November, 2011 file photo.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

It was early in the 2011-12 season when Shawn Bryan first pinpointed what he didn't like about fighting in junior hockey.

Bryan, a father of three and a long-time Barrie Colts season-ticket holder, spent that year watching Aaron Ekblad's first season with the team. The phenom defenceman was granted a rare special exemption to play in the Ontario Hockey League at 15 years old, making him up to five years younger than some players in the league.

What Bryan noticed was several of these much older players were trying to bully Ekblad into a fight, something that is supposed to be against junior hockey's unwritten code. He also realized just how young Ekblad was when the defenceman began attending Grade 10 at the local high school with his daughter.

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"That's where it kind of clicked for me that this isn't quite right," Bryan said. "Especially with what we know about [degenerative diseases of the brain like] CTE."

Four years later, when Bryan began a research project as part of an executive MBA program, he chose the issue of age disparities in fights in junior hockey as his topic. What he discovered was one-third of all the fights in the OHL were between a minor and an adult.

Bryan, now an insurance executive in Edmonton, spent months scouring every OHL game summary – all 3,400 of them – from the past five years to get to that number. Much of the work was painstakingly recording every fight and the age of the participants in a spreadsheet, along with other information, such as who instigated the fight.

Going into his research, Bryan wasn't sure how common a fight between young junior players and veterans really was. But he set a dividing line at 18 years old in order to incorporate the idea of legal – and ethical – consent into junior hockey.

He also looked carefully at whether there was any justification for the OHL to allow minors to fight by evaluating whether fighting improved either attendance or players' draft rankings.

But the more he searched, the more convinced he became that this was an overlooked problem in the game.

"Physical altercations between adults and minors have not been generally accepted in Western culture, inside or outside of sport," Bryan wrote at one point in his study, which later concludes that: "A gratuitous risk exists for the underage participants and an unnecessary ethical conflict exists for ownership" given the age gap.

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Of the more than 2,250 fights in the OHL in the past five years, Bryan's data reveal that nearly 400 – or 17 per cent – involved an age difference of two years or more.

More than 80 fights, meanwhile, had an age difference of three years or more.

Some of the most extreme cases in the league involved overage players instigating fights with rookies such as Ekblad.

In January of 2012, Sarnia Sting veteran Tyler Brown, who was almost 21, fought Tyler Bertuzzi of the Guelph Storm. Bertuzzi, 16, was listed in that season's media guide as three inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Brown.

In December of 2014, Windsor Spitfires forward Slater Doggett (20) went after Sudbury Wolves rookie Brady Pataki (16) for a hit on a teammate. The age gap in that bout was 4 1/4 years, the largest in the past five years.

Bryan also discovered that 15-year-olds fought four times over that time period. Only one of those fights was against a similarly aged player.

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Those extreme mismatches aren't typically permitted in combat sports and certainly not in fights involving minors. Boxing Ontario, for example, stipulates that young fighters face opponents within their age bracket, weight class and experience level.

That's because the physical development curve is so sharp for young athletes. While some junior hockey players are exceptions, a typical teenager's body changes considerably between 15 and 19. They gain on average four or five inches in height and 35 to 45 pounds in those few years.

In fact, many prominent boxing federations around the world call for underage combatants to fall within 12 months of each other in age when they fight.

In the OHL, only half of fights meet that criteria.

"It's too big of an age difference at a developmental time for kids," Bryan said. "And I'm sure they feel pressure [to fight]."

Bryan provided the results of his study and the data he collected to The Globe and Mail in the hope that someone in a leadership role with the Canadian Hockey League sees his research. He wants president David Branch to push for all three leagues to adopt NCAA rules that give players progressively heavier suspensions for each fight, effectively eliminating them from games.

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Bryan points to the fact that OHL attendance has increased even as fighting has fallen substantially in the past five years as further proof that junior hockey can live without teenagers dropping the gloves.

He knows there are fans who aren't willing to pay to watch minors fight adults.

"Both my dad and my father-in-law refuse to go to the games because of the amount of fighting," Bryan said. "[The CHL] may actually have people who aren't going right now come back [if it's eliminated]. Goals are ultimately what we want to see. At least what I want to see."

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