OHL strikes a blow against staged fights

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By Stu Hackel

It's  merely a half-measure, but a new rule in the Ontario Hockey League that goes into effect with tonight's games may be a first step toward getting all staged fights out of junior hockey...and a harbinger of change in the NHL.

Hockey fights are celebrated by some and reviled by others, but pre-arranged fights, which border on the artifice of pro wrestling, can draw the ire of even those who support general belligerence in the game, like Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, who has called them "nonsense."

Two seasons ago, a highly publicized move by the NHL GMs to ban staged fights mysteriously vanished -- murdered, as it turned out, before an NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee meeting. Now, the ban idea has been revived, this time in major junior hockey. Quite unintentionally, it challenges the NHL to again try to adopt something similar.

On Wednesday, the OHL approved a new rule that punishes those who pre-arrange fights that take place at the start of games or periods. Turns out a similar rule has already been in place in the major junior Western Hockey League since 2008-09, but the publicity surrounding the OHL's could thrust the discussion back into the larger spotlight.

Speaking on Toronto radio station FAN 590 on Wednesday(audio), OHL commissioner David Branch said players in his league had even been setting up fights via those dastardly social networking sites on the internet. Branch doesn't consider staged fights to be a major problem -- they may have happened 10 times so far this season -- but he feels they are "ugly" and not in the best interests of his league. And he indicated this new rule could also be adopted by the third Canadian major junior league, the QMJHL.

The new rule reads:

“If two or more players should enter into a fight, prior to, or at the drop of the puck at the commencement of any period of a game, then such player(s) shall be assessed an automatic game misconduct in addition to any penalties assessed, the OHL Member Team shall be fined $500.00 and the player(s) suspended for one (1) game. For any subsequent offense by the same team, the fine shall increase in $500.00 increments, and for any subsequent offense by the same player, the minimum suspension would double from the previous occurrence.”

Do the limitations of the OHL rule -- applied only to fights that are staged at the start of games or periods -- render it a  merely cosmetic change? All two fighters who've agreed to go must do is skate around for a bit, then meet up and drop the gloves. But Branch said the rule can be seen as "stripping away another layer of addressing those issues you feel aren't necessary in our game."

The OHL rule does not go quite as far as the NHL's proposal 19 months ago, which sought to ban all staged fights, but it at least addresses the most egregious contrived bouts, in which absolutely nothing precedes the fisticuffs. For a few years prior, there had been a noticeable rise in them, and it sparked this discussion on an intermission segment over TSN:

The league's research in 2008-09 indicated there had been a 30 percent increase in fights right off of faceoffs over an eight-season span. But their proposal was immediately criticized by then-Canadiens enforcer Georges Laraque and summarily rejected by the NHLPA before it ever came to a vote in the competition committee. The PA -- then led by Paul Kelly, who, a few months earlier, had publicly questioned staged fights and the presence of one dimensional fighters in the game -- did an about-face and opposed the rule because PA members whose role in the game is primarily to fight and do little else pressured their leadership.

The reason the OHL could take this step and the NHL could not perhaps has more to do with that league's streamlined rule-making process. The OHL's five-man executive council approved it (unanimously, as it turns out) and sent it on to the OHL Board of Governors, who adopted it earlier this week. That was it and they decided to introduce it immediately.

"Why wait?" Branch reasoned, as did his league when it adopted in-season rule changes during the last few years against head checks and fighters removing their helmets as well as a rule mandating  throat guards.

An NHL rule change these days typically involves lengthy study by GMs followed by a proposal that goes in front of the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee so it can be amended, approved or rejected. If passed, the rule then goes to the NHL Board of Governors for final approval. Because of this process, rules are almost never introduced during the season. In the case of the staged fights proposal, the PA informed the league prior to the June '09 Competition Committee meeting that it wouldn't vote in favor, and so it was dropped.

But even before the OHL rule, the NHL indicated that it might try to revisit its wider proposal after Don Fehr becomes executive director of the NHLPA. In an e-mail to SI.com's Michael Farber last month, NHL Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy wrote, "We would still like to deal with this issue and will see if there is any appetite with the new leadership of the PA to have this discussion."

It's impossible to know right now where the NHLPA under Fehr will stand on this issue, but as the game continues to evolve and the role of one-dimensional players becomes further marginalized, perhaps conditions are changing and this time the ban on staged fights in the NHL will get some serious consideration.