Limiting how often players can fight in a season might not be about excising fisticuffs from junior hockey. It might be more about putting it in the place coaches and players have always talked about, as a way of policing the game.
Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch made headlines Wednesday by handing down a new 'fight threshold' rule where a player will receive a minimum automatic two-game suspension for each fighting major he receives beyond his 10th of the season (with amnesty for any fight when another player receives an instigator penalty). Since major junior has a higher profile, it was somewhat overlooked that the five Canadian Junior Hockey League member circuits outside Ontario and Quebec have had a stricter fight threshold rule for two years. And CJHL president Kirk Lamb believes it's reducing fighting to what it was initially inteded for — as a way to stick up for teammates.
Since 2010-11, rules in the Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, Maritime and Saskatchewan leagues have called for a two-game suspension to kick in after a player has his seventh fight of season. This season it is starting with the fifth fight. A second instigator during the season also triggers an automatic ban.
"I think there are two types of fights which can have a net benefit," Lamb explained earlier this week. "The one which protects a vulnerable player — someone gets hit from behind, your goalie gets run — or the one which protects a star player. I've always said, not all fights are created equal. Fights that protect star players and fights that protected vulnerable players are a net benefit when compared to not having them in the game.
"There are those in governance of hockey in Canada and the U.S. who will say no fight is a benefit to the game," Lamb added. "I can't prove it statistically and they can't prove whether it's true or not true. Anecdotally, I think it says a lot that almosst every player who has played a high level of hockey will talk about the benefit of having some fights in the game."
In 2009-10, Lamb said the CJHL found there were 1.02 fights per game across the five leagues which signed on for the pilot project. (Fighting is an automatic ejection in the CJHL's other five leagues.) One hundred and forty players in the AJHL, BCHL, MJHL, MHL and SJHL received at least six fighting majors.
There was an immediate impact in '10-11. Only 13 players received a suspension for breaking the fight threshold. That jumped to 50 last season, which is why the suspensions now kick in two fights sooner.
"What we found, and this is a crude way to put it, is kids would fight enough to get up to the threshold," said Lamb, who played his junior inthe AJHL before having a superb run with the ECAC's Princeton Tigers. "We didn't like it, so we reduced it."
Several OHL players have been uneasy about having restrictions on how much they can fight in a sport that cannot be played without an endlessly simmering emotion. Sudbury Wolves wing Chad Thibodeau,a 6-foot-1, 200-pound grinder, told the local Star, "I don't really respect the rule, I don't like it, but I have to live with it, so see we'll see how it works out."
Spares 'another type of violence'
The Windsor Spitfires' Ty Bilcke, who was junior hockey's most profilic pugilist last season with 37 fighting majors, offered a positive spin to the Windsor Star: "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."
Fighting's defenders contend automatic ejections for fisticuffs led to more stickwork and trash talk. Lamb acknowledges that as a rationale behind the rule. The "overwhelming anecodatal evidence" is as it stands, it's part of a fast-moving collision sport.
"When you talk to people in the game who have been governance or administration of the game or played it, almost invariably what they tell you is that if you get rid of fighting [entirely] is what you risk if you have another type of violence," he said.
Lamb says Junior A coaches in Western Canada have told him they see evidence of a shift in thinking; the rule changes have played into roster decisions.
"You can't ignore it when coaches are saying they've had to change and they've seen other coaches change."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.