By Stu Hackel
David Branch, the president of the major junior Ontario Hockey League, has once again shown himself to be one of this sport's real visionaries -- and there are not enough of them in decision-making positions. By advocating and championing the OHL's new rule designed to punish one-dimensional players whose main function is to fight, he's continuing to chart a new course for hockey, one that's leading to a better product.
Branch's league, which produces more NHL draftees than any other source, helped raise awareness of the dangers posed by dangerous play that targets the head when it passed tough, zero-tolerance standards against head checks a few years ago. It hasn't been easy or without criticism, but (as we noted last November) Branch has not buckled. There's no doubt that what the OHL did was noticed by the NHL and helped lead to the adoption and subsequent strengthening of Rule 48 over the past two seasons. It's not the zero tolerance standard of the OHL and it's not intended to be, but it has helped change the culture of the game for the better.
The same could happen with the OHL's newest rule, announced earlier this week, that imposes suspensions to any player who engages in more than 10 fights in a season, minus any bouts in which the other fighter was judged to be the instigator. A frequent fighter will sit for two games after his 11th fight, and two more for every fight after that. If he's the instigator at any time after his 10th fight, he'll get four games. After his 16th fight, his team will start incurring fines.
So in the OHL's season opening games on Thursday night, for example, first year Oshawa heavyweight Tyler Biggs got a fighting major and an instigator for his second-period punch up with Peterborough's Clark Seymour. The well-named Biggs, 30 pounds heavier than Seymour, has now burned the first of his 10 "free" fights in Game 1 while Seymour, who essentially got five minutes for receiving, still has a clean slate. A pair of combatants in the Owen Sound-Windsor opener also picked up their first of 10.
Why 10 fights? Branch told the media on Wednesday (quoted by Yahoo Canada's Neate Sager), "Ninety-two per cent of our players are involved in less than 10 fights (a season). Sixty-six per cent of our players are involved in less than two fights in a given season." So this rule is aimed not at those who would engage in the spontaneous dust-ups sparked by the rising emotions of a game, but the few whose main role on a club is to square off with an opponent.
“I stand by the league’s decision,” Windsor Spitfires forward Ty Bilcke -- who led the OHL in fights last season with 37 -- told Dave Waddell of The Windsor Star. “David Branch’s purpose is to protect the players in the league. I’m actually excited about it. It’s a challenge for me to show people who have been calling me words like 'goon' that I’m a hockey player first. It’ll protect players and bring more skill to the league.”
As with those who believed that striving to remove headshots from the game would reduce hockey's essential physicality, a fear that has not come to pass, there will be those who decry this rule and say it will ruin the sport. These are "the game’s fisticuffs fetishists," as The Hockey News' Adam Proteau calls them. For them, the reason hockey exists -- or at least its main attraction -- is for players to drop the gloves and go. They've been around since the game's dark ages, the mid-1970s, when the Flyers' bush league-inspired pugilistic intimidation tactics proved successful. And, in the copy-cat way that the NHL has always functioned, every team had to go out and get goons of its own.
The spectacle of unprovoked players fighting merely for the sake of fighting has stained this sport for decades, creating a stereotypical image of hockey in the U.S. that through staged fights -- the contemporary manifestation of goonery -- continues to retard the game's growth almost 40 years later. The NHL tried to curb staged fights a few seasons ago, but the effort was blocked by the NHLPA, the measure failing because the league’s fighters — fearful of losing their jobs in an increasingly fast and skilled NHL – asked their union to oppose the new rule in the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee.
As with players who target the heads of opponents, only a handful of guys engage in the majority of the fights. That's what they've been trained to do, and for some of them, it's been their sole purpose in holding down a spot on a roster. Increasingly, however, at the NHL level, those minimally-talented players can no longer effectively compete. We've seen a decline in the number of designated fighters -- and the number of fights -- in the sport's top league, and the OHL's new rule will actually help the professional game progress from a development aspect by producing more complete players.
"Part of pro hockey still is fighting; it's part of the game and I don't see it coming out any time soon," acknowledged NBC's Pierre McGuire speaking on Friday morning over Ottawa radio Team 1200 (audio). But with major junior hockey's role as the top training ground for the pro game, McGuire believes the new OHL rule means junior players will have to become more well-rounded. "Let's just say you're the one-dimensional guy who can only fight. Well, now if you want to keep playing in the league, you'd better learn how to play," McGuire says. "One of the things that has to happen for players to last in hockey, you can't be one-dimensional. You can't just be a skill guy, you'd better be a skill who's hard on the puck. You can't just be a tough guy, you better be a tough guy that's good with the puck. The byproduct of a rule like this is it makes everybody better. It makes players better. If you don't want to be better, you're not going to last."
“From what I heard at the meetings and around the league, I don’t think that (banning fighting) is ever the plan,” Spitfires coach Bob Boughner, a former NHL tough guy, told Waddell. “I think what this league has always said is to be as close to the NHL with the rules and regulations. Let’s face it. We’re trying to send a lot of these guys to the next level. I don’t think (banning fighting) is the intent of this rule. I think its intent is to curb it.”
As Pierre LeBrun of ESPN reported on Wednesday, the NHL will be paying attention to how the OHL's new policy works, although no one expects it will be copied any time soon. Regardless, Branch's focus has not been solely on how the NHL views his initiatives. His other agenda is to make his league more competitive with U.S. college programs when it comes to attracting players by advocating rules changes for combatants who remove their helmets prior to fighting, and on headshots.
In recruiting high school and youth league players, the OHL (along with the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) must go up against NCAA teams, who play in leagues that long ago banned fighting and had historically put a safer game on the ice. Parents of those young players in both Canada and the U.S., while recognizing that major junior is a more certain path to the NHL, saw those leagues as more violent and steered some of their very talented sons in the direction of American college programs. It was Branch who has led junior hockey's changes toward a safer game and greater acceptance in the recruiting game. The OHL's new fighting rules are merely the latest step.
"As a league, we have the responsibility to lead," Branch said over Kitchener, Ont. radio News 570 last March. "So when you look at, internally, the signals are very strong as to the understanding and the need to make adjustments in the style of play as it relates to fighting. We've had two different committees in our league. All have been unanimous in their support of addressing the issue of fighting and seeing what we can do to reduce the number of fights...When I visit with minor hockey parents, when I walk through arenas, the comments are so very, very positive about what the OHL is doing, what hockey is now doing, because their son or daughters who play the games, that's the most precious thing they have in this world and they want to have the best possible environment for their son or daughter when they play the game."
But apart from his recruiting priorities, Branch noted that the challenges hockey faces from mounting evidence that links fighting and brain injuries played a role in this.
"This rule was not solely designed to deal with the concern about concussions," Branch said on Wednesday. "In fact, our statistics show us that fighting is about the third or fourth factor that causes concussions. But it is there, it is a positive in the area of head injuries. That whole issue of head injuries and concussion is No. 1 on our agenda moving forward. We just hope that all leagues, all levels would share the mutual discussion."
That's really not a new discussion, but it's one that must continue. The NHL is generally slow to adopt the kind of changes that David Branch makes in junior hockey and sometimes joins in the criticisms he's received. Branch remains undeterred in his quest to move forward and hockey is better for it.
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