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With fighting in OHL curbed, Branch must set sights on NHL preseason bouts

OHL fight

No rule changes for the Ontario Hockey League this season were announced on the preseason conference call with media, but league commissioner David Branch suggested last year's big change, the 10-fight limit, had a positive effect on the league and that the rule will be looked at down the road.

"I think most people recognize hockey is a tough game," Branch said. "In order to be successful at it, you have to be a tough-minded individual."

The commissioner also suggested that while players, particularly enforcers like Ty Bilcke haven't come out in full support of the ban, that players are embracing the fact that they can be work on their hockey skills and be appreciated for doing things other than fighting. Fighting in the OHL dropped by 24% this past season to just 0.70 per game, which is very close to the QMJHL's 0.67 from last season. Fighting in the junior game has been decreasing steadily for 15 years, and the hockey community's newfound appreciation for the dangers of concussions could lead to a further drop this next season.

Branch said that concussion numbers have dropped in the OHL in recent years, that "categorically, they are down", but a study published this summer by Laura Donaldson, Mark Asbridge and Michael Cusimano suggested that total reported concussions in the OHL haven't dropped since 2010. It's possible that there is a decrease in actual concussions based on a higher percentage of concussions being reported, but how Branch could have 'unreported concussion' data is a mystery. The Ontario League has taken some strides to curb the effect of head injuries by attempting to reduce the number of fights players take part in and Branch has developed a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian when it comes to high-speed collisions. The punitive measures put in place aren't causing the OHL to report lower concussion numbers than the NHL, so the answer must be elsewhere.

For Branch to suggest that "the hockey community at large has finally recognized… that there are certain needs and desires that have to occur in the area of head injuries" as he did Wednesday morning, the OHL has to work closer with the National Hockey League to ensure that players adhere to the rule outside the junior game. The general rule of thumb in the NHL is that the lower leverage of game situation, the more fights will take place. In the 2012 playoffs, there were 0.43 fights per game. In the 2011-2012 preseason, there was 1.43 as more junior kids were literally fighting for jobs. That data is from hockeyfights.com.

Look at the case of Windsor Spitfires pugilist Ty Bilcke was invited to the Edmonton Oilers' training camp. In a prospect tournament played in Penticton, B.C., Bilcke dropped the gloves on two occasions, against Victoria Royals forward and Calgary prospect Keegan Kanzig and Kingston Frontenacs enforcer Jean Dupuy, invited by the Winnipeg Jets. Neither Bilcke nor Dupuy is going to make an NHL roster off of skill alone, so it's scary to think that NHL clubs are still encouraging fighting at the junior level to give players a shot in camp and a chance at one or two NHL games down the line. Bilcke fought 37 times in the 2012 OHL season, but just 10 times in the 2013 season after the ban was introduced. He's already fought three times this season and it's not even October, with a preseason bout against Plymouth's Mitch Jones.

At Backhand Shelf this week, former NCAA-er Justin Bourne wrote about the frequency of fights in the preseason, focusing his post around the case of Michael Sdao, who had 16 fights in two USHL seasons before departing to Princeton. Now in his first pro camp, he's already fought three times:

I’m not saying that Michael Sdao has to fight – he doesn’t, of course. Nobody does. I’m just saying he kind of has to. It’s an undeniable fact that in the culture of hockey fighting is worn like a badge of honor, and if you’re a kid trying to not just make an NHL team now, but also a team somewhere down the road, collecting badges is never a bad thing. We’ll get back to Sdao in a moment.

Pre-season games are often scary as hell because you have a bunch of kids who don’t know if they’re talented enough to make it to the show on raw skill who are willing to do anything to get there (including fight) [The Score]

Regardless of whether attitudes are changing in hockey, as Branch suggests, the culture isn't changing fast enough at the highest level of the game. Players like Bilcke and Dupuy will fight when they get opportunities outside of junior hockey to make an impression. Kanzig fought twice in three games in Penticton, but just 15 times in 70 WHL games last season, nowhere close to the right ratio. Most of these kids that are getting in preseason fights are doing so without professional contracts. Sdao does, but Bilcke and Dupuy were at their camps on amateur tryout contracts, and Kanzig has not yet been signed to a contract by the Flames. Again, with neither player at camp purely on the basis of skill, the pressure to fight is greater, and without a contract that provides some insurance in the case of an injury, the risk is much greater as well.

Players like Sdao won't be drawn away from fighting despite rules in the developmental league against it. The same goes for current NHL tough guys Mike Brown and George Parros, who played at the University of Michigan and Princeton, respectively. If the fight limit hasn't curbed Bilcke or Dupuy, what will it do in to the future players coming in?

It's clear that the next step for the OHL is to work with the NHL to institute similar restrictions. Reported concussions will continue to rise if the bigger, stronger and faster players Branch alluded to continue to play under the same rules. In the wake of the National Football League's massive settlement with retired players over concussion issues, hockey needs to take a serious step forward.

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