Are tougher suspensions changing the OHL?

When Jamie Wise was suspended for eight games earlier this season, he had a lot of time to sit and reflect in the stands.

The veteran Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors forward acknowledged he was responsible for the hit he put on Kingston Frontenacs defenceman Kyler Nixon, who was uninjured.

“I guess I was kind of a bit late and he was in a vulnerable position,” said the 20-year-old Wise. “I could have held back, but I was just finishing my check and it was kind of my mistake.”

Wise, a self-proclaimed grinder, was forechecking in the Kingston zone when Nixon gathered the puck. The 18-year-old quickly released the puck and seconds later he was sent flying by Wise.

“I’m the type of player that will finish my check,” said Wise. “I’m just doing my job. It was a little bit late, but it’s too fast to think that quickly. I could have held back but that didn’t go through my head – it was a mistake on my part.”

Mistakes that many other players in the Ontario Hockey League have made this season under the stringent new policy set forth by league commissioner Dave Branch. Since the 2011-12 campaign opened on Sept. 23, some 35 players have earned suspensions totaling upwards of 205 games – including a 20-game ban to Niagara’s Tom Kuhnhackl.

Of the three leagues, the OHL is the only one that does not post a comprehensive list of suspensions on its website. Calls left for Branch by Yahoo! Sports were not returned.

In the Western Hockey League this season the league has suspended 28 players for a total 95 games – with three players suspended more than once this year. The longest suspension in the WHL thus far is a 10-game ban of the Prince George Cougars’ scoring forward, Charles Inglis for a violent elbow to the head of Victoria defenceman Tyler Stahl, who suffered a concussion. Everett’s Jesse Mychan was also given 10 games for a head check – his second head check suspension of the season and his third suspension in total.

Conversely, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which started its season two weeks earlier than the WHL and OHL, has only punished 35 players for a total of 85 games this season. The longest suspension – 15 games – went to Baie-Comeau Drakkar forward Jonathan Lessard, a repeat offender, whose knee-on-knee hit last month ended the season of Quebec Remparts import Nick Sorensen.

“The rules are clear,” explained QMJHL disciplinary prefect Raymond Bolduc. “We try to teach the players to respect their opponents but it’s hard to change the culture of hockey. We’ll arrive in the end with better safety for the players. The three most dangerous things are kneeing, checking from behind and hits to the head, and we’ve tried to change that with the support from our coaches and governors.”

But are longer suspensions really the best way to create a safer league? Or have rule changes like the trapezoid, no centre-ice red line and a crackdown on obstruction taken away the time and space necessary for players to make better decisions when it comes to the game’s physical play?

“When we changed the rules like the centre red line,” said Bolduc, “we have more speed, and with that we have more contact and it’s hard for the players, too.”

Is that speed taken into account during the suspension process?

“No, because those are the rules,” said Bolduc. “The players have to adjust to that.”

The OHL has made it clear that any contact with the head – intentional or not – will result in a hefty suspension this season with most bans starting at eight to 10 games. And while it’s easy for the league to show and tell players what now constitutes a bad hit, it’s harder to make those judgment calls out on the ice with the game faster than ever. How tough is it to process when someone drops their head or turns at the last second and momentum is carrying you at great speed?

“It’s really hard,” said Wise. “If you’re Einstein, maybe, but it’s real hard to judge that.”

Windsor’s Zack MacQueen was suspended 10 games earlier this month for a check to the head of London’s Vladislav Namestnikov. The collision was so fast MacQueen thought he had delivered a clean check and didn’t even realize he had caught the Russian star in the head.

“I didn’t know I’d hit his head until I saw the replay,” MacQueen told the Windsor Star. “After watching it, it didn’t look good.

“I was trying to go shoulder to shoulder. I think it was caused by me coming across the ice and him trying to avoid the hit. Everything happened so fast that I thought it was a clean hit until I saw the replay.”

Can severe suspensions reform players when the game is happening so fast, they don’t even realize they’ve done something wrong?

“Five years ago some of these hits would be considered great hits,” said Kingston head coach Todd Gill, who played more than 1,000 games in the NHL. “The secret as a coach is to tell the players to get in as fast as you can on the forecheck and finish your checks and if you’re going full speed and a kid turns, it’s an awful tough play to stop your momentum. I know that you have to and you should, but there’s going to be times when these incidents happen.

“You catch a guy with his head down, nine times out of 10 it’s going to be a head shot because at the last minute the first reaction is to duck. Even though you aren’t targeting the head, the head goes right to where the elbow or shoulder is and it’s an automatic head shot. … Is it a head shot because he ducked into it or is it a head shot because you targeted the head? This game is so fast, how is the referee supposed to determine between the two?”

Let’s be clear, no one – coaches, general managers, players or fans – wants to see anyone injured by a hit, clean or otherwise. But is the best recourse for players looking to avoid a hefty suspension not to hit when in doubt?

“That’s what it’s going to have to come down to,” said Gill.

In a recent interview with the St. Catharines Standard, Niagara IceDogs head coach and GM Marty Williamson said he had been told by a fellow OHL GM and someone within the NHL that the “league is getting soft.” And while Williamson said he does not agree with that statement, he wonders about the path the OHL is taking.

“We used to point to the NCAA game (where) you could play with your head down and sticks were banging off cages and all that kind of stuff,” said Williamson. “We (the OHL) played the real hockey where you had to have your head up and you had to be tough … and it’s almost changing from what I’m hearing from NHL scouts. You want to see some hard hitting and stuff, you go and watch an NCAA game now and if you come to the OHL now, you’re not going to see a lot of hitting.”

He also believes that despite the OHL’s best intentions, the message is that it’s now OK to skate with your head down.

“I can now skate around with my head around my knees and if somebody hits me, it’s a head hit,” said Williamson. “And don’t think these kids don’t know that. They know what the rules are … we don’t want that. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the business. If it can draw a penalty, teams will do whatever they have to do to manipulate the system. But that’s not good for anybody.

“I know this isn’t what Dave (Branch) wants, but this is the by-product. We’re not teaching that. That’s for sure, because I don’t want to see anyone with their head down. I don’t want to see kids hurt.”

Williamson said the last thing he wants is a passive forecheck, even through the OHL recently suspended Kuhnhackl 20 games for his freight-train run on Kitchener defenceman Ryan Murphy as the two were going for the puck behind the Rangers net. Murphy, a first-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, hasn’t played a game since and Kuhnhackl, fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was also left injured.

“We’re an aggressive team, we want to put puck pressure on and we keep pushing, but I tell you, I hold my breath an awful lot now,” said Williamson. “Especially when you’ve got a bigger guy on a smaller guy, those are the ones that really worry me to some extent. When you’ve got a bigger guy like Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-4, 196-pounds) that wants to hit someone and then all of a sudden if the head drops and he makes contact with it, he’s looking at 10 games or more.”

There’s also the thought that the OHL might have gone too far and is heading towards the opposite end of the physical spectrum.

“Now even good hard bodychecks are being called (penalties),” said another OHL GM, who requested anonymity because he did not want to be fined by the league. “You can’t really do anything out there at all. With the hits, even if there’s a big noise (from a collision), the refs get excited and put their hand up.

“No one wants their kids to get hit. But is this too much overkill?”

He believes that players know when they’re wrong and that the OHL is wielding justice too severely in cases where there are no injuries or intent to injure.

“I don’t know how we can keep going,” said the anonymous GM. “Five games used to be a huge (suspension). Then it got to eight and 12, now it’s 15 to 20. Sometimes it’s an accident when you hit a guy. … And sitting out 10 games, does he get the same message when he’s sitting out another month with 10 more games? If Player X in the OHL gets suspended 20 games, how does his NHL team feel about that?”

As the debate continues on a daily basis with every suspension the league hands out, the players will continue to attempt to keep their wits and emotions in check knowing they could be one hit away from spending a quarter of the 68-game season watching from the stands.

“I’ve let up a lot in the past games,” said Wise. “I’m just so used to hitting guys, but when I see them with their head down or with their back turned, I’ll just give them a little bump or something – I don’t try to go right through them. That’s the game now.”

It’s a message Wise hears loud and clear.

“I guess Dave Branch is trying to get the message across that he doesn’t want this anymore and we’re going to follow his rules because we have to.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: | Twitter @Sunayas

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