With this week’s announcement of new rules to curb gratuitous fighting in the Ontario League, commissioner David Branch has again shown himself to be one of the game’s most progressive forces. More importantly, Branch’s decision is the latest indication there is only one direction in which the game is headed – namely, to a point where fighting is a baffling anachronism – whether the game’s fisticuff fetishists like it or not.
That point won’t arrive tomorrow, next month or even next year. North American hockey culture has glorified player punch-outs for so long that it will take a generation or two before athletes and coaches awaken to the needlessness of fights. But Branch’s latest initiative illustrates yet again there’s no turning back to the days where bare-fanged aggression has more of an effect on the sport than actual, tangible hockey talent.
The OHL’s new fighting rules target the one-dimensional goon that has plagued the game for far too long. Beginning this year, players who engage in more than 10 fights in a single season will face a two-game suspension for each additional scrap. After the repeat offender’s 16th fight, teams also will be fined $1,000.
Now, is that my ideal solution? No. The threshold for two-game suspensions should be considerably lower. I’d also argue the number of games a player should be suspended for ought to rise, potentially dramatically, with each fight beyond the established threshold.
But hey, it’s a start. And as mentioned earlier, this move – which almost assuredly will be followed by Canada’s other two major junior leagues at some point – is another nail in the coffin of those people who still maintain there is room in hockey for a player who, you know, can’t really compete at an elite level.
No junior commissioner in his right mind would relax any rules to encourage more fights. Much of that stems from the fact these players aren’t professionals, that few will go on to earn a living playing the game, that they have parents who rightfully are concerned for their health. Indeed, as more and more is learned about the damage done by concussions (damage many leading neurologists will tell you is incurred any time there’s a punch to the head) across the sports spectrum, the rationale to keep fighting in hockey will yellow and curl and warp in on itself like a newspaper left in the sun.
And as that happens – as fighting at all levels of the amateur game is whittled down bit by bit – there eventually will be no excuse for the professionals not to follow suit. After all, if a goon can’t be a goon in junior or collegiate hockey, he’s much less likely to rise to the top of the hockey echelon based solely on his ability to punch another human being in the head.
Branch’s new rules on fighting have already been scrutinized and there are valid questions being asked about them. As my THN colleague Ryan Kennedy noted, teams that are aware of an opposition player who has nine fights in a season may exploit it by taking liberties with that player’s team.
However, that’s no reason to rescind the new rule. As Branch has proven, any league and its administration have all the power necessary to deal with wayward and reckless actions on the ice. If something untoward happened to the team of a player who had nine suspensions, Branch could make an example of the team that took liberties in whatever manner he chooses.
It likely won’t come to that, though. My bet is the OHL product will remain virtually indistinguishable from the product that was out there last year or the year before. Just as we heard with the panicked prognostications that arose out of the battle to do away with obstruction – the usual “this is a man’s game!” nonsense – we’ll discover the game is better for the changes that are being made.
In any case, it’s almost moot to argue otherwise at this point. Fighting fans have to know they’re living on borrowed cultural time. Society progresses and hockey has no choice but to do so. And some day, perhaps decades from now, Branch’s rules won’t be looked at as some grand gesture that saved the sport from itself.
Instead, it will be seen as the absolute bare minimum, the baby steps that helped return reason and sanity to the game.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
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