It wasn’t that long ago — roughly a year — that the rough and tumble side of hockey was in a public state of crisis. Strong terminology, but fair. After the deaths of active and former players Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien — which many tied directly to their propensity for fisticuffs — we’ve all had to take a long hard look at the role of fighting in hockey.
There certainly doesn’t appear to be any strong movement to abandon fighting outright. Many folks have been vocal in their criticisms, but it appears as though the NHL and NHLPA may be unified in one way — neither party wants to oust fighting. Yet, the status quo won’t do much to ease the concerns generated by fighting in the first place.
Luckily for the pro ranks, the Ontario Hockey League may have done the solving for them.
I, for one, am pro-fighting. I understand the ramifications, I understand why people think it’s stupid, but I still can’t change the fact that when a scrap breaks out on the ice I come out of my seat. It happens. It’s a reflex. I know many of you likely go a step further and engage in some pseudo-shadow boxing.
That’s the bizarre part of all of this. Most of us know better. I’ve certainly had that moment of self-awareness during a fight where I simply think, “Wow, we stopped playing a game so two dudes can punch each other. This must be the final frontier of humanity.” But it still gets us nonetheless.
I’ll be the first to admit, however, that I cannot stand the scripted fights which have become rampant in the NHL. I imagine that they come about something like, “Hey, you’re tough, right? So am I! Shall we engage in fisticuffs at about the 2:30 mark of the second period? Splendid!” Upon which they wail on one another until fatigue sets in. That’s the part of the game where I get out of my seat to refill my beverage.
The OHL instituted a new rule this season wherein any player who has amassed 10 fights is suspended two games. And another two games for every fight on top of that until he reaches 15 fights, wherein he is suspended two games and his team is fined. There are nuances, of course, such as any fight where an instigator is handed out doesn’t count against the player who didn’t pick up the extra two minutes. On the flip side, instigators for players after 10 fights pick up four game suspensions instead of two.
The results of this new system have been interesting. A common argument against suspensions as preventative measures is things happen too quickly in real time for a player to consciously consider he may be suspended for doing it. Yet, fighting is down 20 percent across the league. You’d be hard-pressed to sell this as coincidence.
The issue even made its way into the New York Times:
“It’s definitely in the back of guys’ heads — they know,” said Bilcke, a 6-foot-2, 217-pound 18-year-old fourth-liner with a friendly demeanor. “Guys are more cautious. I think there’s a lot less dirty games, and play isn’t getting out of hand as much.”
That was in evidence at a recent Windsor-Barrie Colts game here. The teams drew together in a seething mass during warm-ups because a Colts player skated partly over the red line into the Spitfires’ side of the ice, but no punches were thrown and only one fight broke out during the game. In the past, such an incident would have been the prelude to a brawl-filled evening.
“Generally, it’s done a decent job of getting rid of the staged fights,” Windsor Coach Bob Boughner said. “I don’t think it’s an antifighting rule, but the league wants to see fighting curbed. They don’t want to see a player get 30 or 40 fights in a season, and I have some agreement with that.”
Those of you who read that story will also be entertained by a lovely Twitter quote from Brian McGrattan: “Feel sorry for those kids that cant fight in junior and are gonna have to learn the hard way in pro gettin their head punched in.”
The irony here, of course, is that while McGrattan was a tough player in junior, he didn’t actually fight all that much. When he did it generally came with misconducts that inflated his PIM totals. Having seen it first hand, I can vouch for McGrattan being a fairly capable power forward with a hell of a snapshot. He had to pick up fighting to complete the leap and his record has been fairly good.
He was in no way hindered by not being able to fight at any given moment. The skating is what did him in. There are always going to be plenty of players who decide that becoming a scrapper is the only way to make the jump, but your body can only take so much punishment. While they’ll no doubt be more prone to getting their asses kicked early on, perhaps by saving some of that punishment for when they’re older and stronger and not children is the way to go.
The key here is that it appears the OHL has found a way to bring down fight totals. While I don’t think something necessarily needs to be done, if the NHL is to progress with respect to how it handles head trauma diminishing fights is a natural first step. What’s more is this wouldn’t erase the fights which come about organically, just diminish those which add nothing to the game. Everybody is happy.
There’s no better way to flip what’s scripted than erasing it altogether.