When Larry Mavety tells you stories about his early days in hockey, they seem almost fantastical.
They are scenes straight out of the movie Slap Shot, in which the 69-year-old former player, coach and GM was actually an extra.
The memories are still vivid. His first pro game coming out of junior hockey was in the long-defunct International Hockey League for the Toldeo Blades in 1963.
“Two guys got into a stick fight,” said Mavety, who now serves as a special advisor to the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. “They started swinging sticks and then everybody got into it. Then the fans – the chairs weren’t bolted down – so the fans started throwing chairs. They turned the lights off and played the national anthem. I’m 21 years old and I’m thinking, ‘What in God’s name have I gotten myself into?’ Unbelievable.
“The fans would just fold up the chairs and throw ‘em at us. That actually happened to me twice.”
Times and attitudes have certainly changed. In the decades since Mavety’s rude introduction to the pro game, the long-time junior hockey fixture has seen the game evolve to the point where it’s now hard to imagine when full-scale brawls were the norm rather than an anomaly (though that was the case at one time in major junior). He credits OHL commissioner and CHL president Dave Branch for implementing tougher rules to curb pugilism – particularly the so-called ‘staged fight’ where combatants drop the gloves without provocation.
“I think from that standpoint the league and Branch have done a good job,” said Mavety. “We used to have pre-game brawls and the buildings would be full. You’d have Belleville and Kingston play each other and the building would be full for the warmup because that’s what (the fans) came to see. They got rid of that, and that’s a good thing.”
The news that Branch is entertaining the idea of implementing further sanctions to curb fighting at the major junior level, however, has once again made the contentious issue a hot-button topic. Both Branch and Hockey Canada head Bob Nicholson told the New York Times that fighting becoming a thing of the past in junior hockey was closer to becoming a reality. The two sides on the issue seem diametrically opposed – you’re either labeled a knuckle-dragger or tree-hugger - with no real middle ground.
"When you talk about fighting, I don't think our game needs it to sell,” Branch told Kitchener’s 570 News. “I don't think our players really want it at the end of the day. Yeah, there's a handful of players who feel that's the only way they can compete and that's not where we want to be. I don't think we want to put young people in that position either."
Anecdotally, Mavety said he’s seen a decrease in fighting in the OHL and, as such, there’s no need for further sanctions.
“I think fighting has gone down quite a bit,” said Mavety. “And I’m talking about fights; there are a lot of five-minute (fighting) majors where I don’t know how they even got five minutes. Two guys drop the gloves and push each other and then hang on, there are quite a few of those, too.”
The statistics back up those claims as well. According to the findings of Yahoo! Sports contributor Cam Charron, fighting across the CHL has dropped almost in half since 1998, when there were 1.91 fights per game. That number has reduced to just 0.92 fights per game so far this season – with the QMJHL leading the way with 0.79 fights per game, followed by the OHL (0.94 fights per game) and the Western Hockey League (1.01 fights per game).
But for some, even one fight is too many. The debate is even more heightened in junior hockey when you factor in the recent data on concussions and the fact the CHL is a developmental league for predominantly teenage players.
“I know the damage it has done to my body, but I don’t know what the long-term damage is,” said minor hockey coach and former NHL enforcer Jim Thomson, an outspoken proponent of banning fighting in hockey. “Why would I want my 14 or 15-year-old boy to go out and become a fighter?
“Yes, (fighting) gave us a life, but it doesn’t make it right today. These young men, how much damage do they incur between (Tier II) provincial junior and the CHL to the American Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League and beyond?”
Thomson is running a workshop in Thornhill, Ont., in late March to discuss violence and bullying in hockey with parents. The former Los Angeles Kings forward said the game has progressed enough that fighting in a game is senseless.
“What gives you the right to pound somebody on an ice rink when you can’t do that on the street? It’s violence,” said Thomson who had 416 career NHL penalty minutes in 115 games. “You want to watch a fight? Go watch UFC. The fact that it sells in the NHL? Shame on them. This is somebody’s kid, somebody’s son who is going out there.”
Former pro hockey player, Ryan Barnes, who holds the OHL single-season record for penalty minutes (399), says there’s a big difference between a player who makes a living as an enforcer and a player who can fight. As the father of two young boys active in hockey, he sees fighting as a complex issue.
“In minor hockey is there a place for it? Probably not,” said Barnes, now 32.. “For me, as somebody that has kids, would I want my son to make a career out of being a fighter – or playing the fighter’s role – in the NHL or as a professional player I would say, ‘No.’ But I would be proud of him if he stuck up for his teammates and a fight was a byproduct of him being a good teammate.”
New Jersey Devils enforcer Cam Janssen, who collected 98 fighting majors between the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires and Guelph Storm during his major junior career, believes the CHL would be overreacting, and that eliminating fighting could end up hurting those players looking to develop more of a complete pro game.
“I’ve fought so many times and I’ve gotten all my injuries from things like body checks, flying into the boards hard and stuff like that,” said the forward, who has amassed 730 PIMs in 302 NHL games. “Don’t get me wrong, you can get injured (fighting), but that’s the decision that I’m making. You can get injured doing anything – going to get the puck in the corners. Are they going to cut that out? Because guys can get hurt going into corners and getting tripped up. Defencemen going back to play the puck going hard into the boards, are they going to cut that out?
“It’s just going to ruin the game and it’s such a great league. It’s making me sick to my stomach thinking about it. It’s going to ruin kids because they’re going to be clueless when they come up to the NHL.”
He said the days of hockey teams wasting roster spots on one dimensional players – hired solely to fight – has already become a thing of the past.
“You can’t just go out there and fight, that’s completely out of the NHL already,” said the St. Louis native. “Everybody who fights in the OHL can still play, it’s not just a bunch of meatheads who come up and just fight – that’s gone already. Now, it’s good skilled players who are big and who can fight to protect themselves and give them that extra room on the ice because they’re tough. It’s an extra thing that guys have to say, ‘Hey, don’t mess with me because I can fight.’ So they get that extra step and that extra room on the ice. You take that away and it’s going to be a bunch of little kids on the ice slashing and hitting you saying, ‘Go ahead, you can’t fight me. What do I care?’ ”
The notion that stick-work would automatically increase or that players would start scurrying around without any accountability was also echoed by Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke in January when he lamented the diminished role of the NHL enforcer. Burke said his fear was that without the players policing themselves, the “rats” would soon take the game over.
“I think (the rats) already have taken over, if you want my opinion on that,” said Kitchener Rangers GM and head coach Steve Spott. “I think right now the instigator rule allowed the smaller-type player to be a little braver. I do believe that’s happened, so is Brian (Burke) correct? I think he is, but at the same time I believe it starts at the grassroots level when we are drafting our players – that’s not an element we need to draft anymore.”
Spott does not believe, however, that hockey will ever be completely free of fighting because of the strong emotional element of the game. Even in the NCAA, where players are faced with the penalty of automatic ejection, fisticuffs still occur.
“There were fights in the NCAA too, but you were thrown out of the game,” said Spott who played for Colgate University. “I don’t think you’re ever going to take fighting out of the game.
“You want to be team tough, you want to be physical, you want to be competitive, but at the same time I don’t need that (enforcer) element anymore. If you have two people who are frustrated over a contact situation, things are going to happen and I would prefer that to stick-swinging or any stick work. But at the same time, I don’t think that staged fighting is anything that we need in our league anymore.
“Those days are done.”