CHL president David BranchAt the outset of the season, Canadian Hockey League president David Branch said eradicating fighting in junior hockey was not as high a priority as reducing all concussions. So it sounds like the top executive in major junior has changed his tune since then, since The New York Times gave significant space today to the possibility that USA Hockey and Hockey Canada could pass rules this summer to "make fighting a rarity, not an expectation" in all junior leagues throughout North America as early as next season.
The strong comments from both Branch and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson suggest there could be a significant step forward in the not so distant future.
From John Branch:
"The appetite is there," said David Branch, the president of the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League. "The time is certainly right to move forward."
... The issue has dominated meetings of hockey's umbrella organizations this season. Most leaders believe that rules to deter fighting will be significantly stiffened during organization-wide meetings this summer.
"The official stance from Hockey Canada is that we want to get rid of fighting as quickly as we can," said Bob Nicholson, the organization's chief executive, overseeing more than half a million amateur players across Canada, including about 32,000 adults and 10,000 juniors (16 to 20 years old) not in the top-tier Canadian Hockey League. "Our ultimate goal is to remove fighting." (New York Times)
As Gregg Drinnan pointed out, the mere fact this story appears in journalism's Old Grey Lady "tells you all you need to know about in which direction the fighting story is headed." What's happened is the way the debate has been framed has changed. Typically, it's been about how this would affect the quality of the game, like with any other rule change in a team sport. Now it's a health and welfare issue.
Who knows where that seed was planted. Hockey doesn't exist in a vacuum and the amount of media coverage in the U.S. about the health risks associated with playing football has prompted people to pose similar questions about hockey. Fighting, it goes without saying, is not even the leading cause of brain trauma in hockey, but it's an easier element to control. As Drinnan put it:
You have to understand that this has nothing to do with the entertainment value of fighting, or its aesthetics or its impact, positive or negative, on ticket sales.
This is strictly a safety issue. (Taking Note)
Meantime, the chorus that believes willingness to fight = winning is getting smaller by the day. There is no correlation at the junior level. The rebuilding Windsor Spitfires have an OHL-most 96 fighting majors and are 16th overall in the 20-team league. To be fair, the Plymouth Whalers have the second-most (74) and are tied for second overall — but they're tied with the Niagara IceDogs, who have the third-fewest fighting majors (44). The first and worst overall teams in the league, London and Erie, have exact same total (47).
And so on. Three of the WHL's more pugilistic teams, the Moose Jaw Warriors (77 fighting majors), Edmonton Oil Kings (76) and Medicine Hat Tigers (74), are having strong seasons. But the top three teams in the standings, the Portland Winterhawks (52 fights), Kamloops Blazers (50) and Tri-City Americans (49) are among the teams with the fewest fighting majors.
In any event, this is a big change from what Branch said on the eve of the regular season in the OHL and WHL.
"It's not something that we've had on our agenda directly, shall we say. Our area of focus and concern has been head injuries. The leading factors for head injuries are clearly not as a result of fighting. First and foremost, that should be understood. We've been going through an educational process, we've put in some new rules, we're really focused on the health and welfare of our players." (Sept. 20, 2011)
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.