How the CHL parries the push to ban fighting

Neate Sager

When it comes to the eternal question about banning fighting in junior hockey, the Canadian Hockey League has its story and it's sticking to it.

Fighting is on the frontburner again since USA Hockey has recommended eliminating it from all American junior leagues, including the USHL, and wants Hockey Canada, the CHL and Canadian Junior Hockey League to go along. (Why would the USHL going for something that makes it less like the CHL?) From Allan Maki:

Canadian hockey officials are willing to discuss the fighting issue and do what's best for the players. Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson participated in a meeting with USA Hockey during the 2012 world junior tournament in Edmonton and said Thursday: "We want to remove fighting from the game, but we don't want to create other violent acts that may occur. We'll work hand in hand with USA Hockey. (The Globe & Mail)

One can, present company included, make every well-intentioned argument about how hockey is a great enough game that it does not need fighting or that teenagers' physical welfare shouldn't be excessively jeopardized for the vicarious joy of the ticket-buying public. It is possible the day when it will be removed from major junior, not because the owners vote for it but because it is forced to by legislation and/or litigation. (Concussion prevention is already becoming a wedge issue.) For now, the CHL and the heads of all three leagues, Ron Robison in the west, David Branch in Ontario and Gilles Courteau in the east, have their line of rhetoric.

1. Fighting is declining already — The WHL, borrowing from Gregg Drinnan's calculations, is on pace to see fighting drop 5.7 per cent this season. Over in the OHL, the league is averaging 0.93 fights per game this season, a decline of just less than 5% compared to the average of 0.97 for all of last season.

It is not a huge drop. It is no guarantee fighting will keep declining in seasons to come. One can see how a point is a point for the CHL.

2. There are no more designated fighters — Also true, more or less. People who hear that probably conjure up memories of the 1980s and '90s when junior teams brought in players with dubious skating skills, like the infamous Jeff Kugel, just for their pugilistic prowess.

However, it might prevent people from remembering there are players who have dropped the mitts in hope it will open doors in NHL organizations. The fighting-major leaders in the OHL and WHL last season, Peterborough's Derek Mathers and Spokane's Darren Kramer, were each drafted by NHL teams last summer. Each can play the game reasonably well and each wears a letter for his team, but their example probably isn't lost on other fringe players who are looking to get a leg up by putting up their dukes.

3. The old fear of the unknown — Canadian Junior Hockey League chairman Kirk Lamb told Maki, "We just want to be sure that we do it [remove fighting] in a way that doesn't trade one type of violence for another, such as head shots or dangerous hits."

That, along with a similar quote from Bob Nicholson, drew a blast from Drinnan:

Ahh, yes, the creation of "other violent acts" excuse, the thinking being that if players aren't allowed to punch themselves in the face they'll hack themselves to death with their sticks. (Taking Note)

The validity of believing the law of unintended consequences would rule the day if fighting was expunged is tenuous. No one knows for sure what would happen. There is little refuting it, though, because it's seldom been tried in Canada on any large scale. You can talk about what happens in Europe, but that tends to fall on deaf ears, Canadian hockey chauvinism being what it is.

Point being, junior hockey can probably do without fighting. It probably should do without fighting. The tail wags the dog, though. The arena gameday staff still crank the Rocky theme when the gloves come off. Leagues, including the USHL, don't shy away from publicizing a coach whose teams had a high rate of fighting majors. It's doubtful fans go to games first and foremost to see fights, but the prospect of seeing it is part of selling the sizzle, for good or ill.The power rests with hockey people and owners. So long as they believe it's part of the junior game and business model, fighting will stay.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.