OHL cracks down further on staged fights, builds in suspensions for dirty hits

Two seasons ago the Ontario Hockey League instituted a 10-fight threshold for players and contrary to predictions made by fighting apologists, the world remained on its axis. However, as many have pointed out, only a small percentage of brain injuries in hockey — and keep in mind a developing teenage mind is much more vulnerable to trauma than that of a fully grown adult male — occur as a result of fights.

On Wednesday, the OHL and commissioner David Branch rolled out a string of on-ice player safety initiatives intended to further reduce gratuitious and/or staged fights and predatory hits. One can already senses knees jerking — at least one player has sounded off on Twitter — but the fact is that the league's 20 teams approved the changes.

Here's the league release, verbatim:

— "The OHL will be augmenting the current staged fight rule whereby players receive an automatic game misconduct for a fight occurring immediately following the drop of the puck at the commencement of a period or game. Such rule has been expanded so as to include a fight which occurs immediately following any faceoff during the game. Should a staged fight occur, the player(s) involved shall each receive a game misconduct in addition to the major penalty and any other penalties assessed. (Emphasis mine)

— If a player receives a third game misconduct during the season for a combination of any five-minute major and game misconduct penalties for checking to the head, checking from behind, boarding, kneeing and clipping, for which suspensions have not previously been applied, he shall receive an automatic one-game suspension. For each subsequent game misconduct, the suspension shall be increased accordingly.

— "If a player receives a third minor penalty for instigating during the season, he shall receive an automatic one-game suspension. For each subsequent instigating minor penalty, the suspension shall be increased accordingly.

— "The number of fighting majors that a player can receive in a game before a game misconduct is assessed shall be reduced from three to two. (Editor's note: the same rule is already in place in the QMJHL.)

— "If a player receives a fourth minor penalty during the regular season in any one of the following categories, i.e., checking from behind, checking to the head, kneeing, clipping or boarding, he shall receive a one-game suspension. For each subsequent minor penalty in any of the particular categories, the suspension shall be increased accordingly.

— "Each team shall have a threshold of three major penalties for fighting during each game. A disciplinary fine shall be assessed for each team exceeding such threshold." (OHL)

In 2012-13, the first year after the OHL adapted the fight-threshold rule that was already in place in some Junior A leagues, only one player, Peterborough Petes captain Daryl Mathers, was suspended for having too many fighting majors. No one was suspended under the rule last season. Essentially, what Canadian Junior Hockey League president Kirk Lamb said in September 2012 about his league's experience with the rule, that players go up to the limit and the cease the fisticuffs, has been borne out over the past two seasons in the OHL.

Extending a similar policy to 'five-and-a-game' infractions and to certain minor penalties is a hornet's nest, of course. It puts extra onus on the league's referees, who are developing their skills just like the league's 16- to 20-year-old players, to make precise calls in a sport that moves too quickly to ever have perfect officiating. (It's also notable that the rule changes don't cover charging penalties.) Ottawa-based blogger Kathryn Jean noted how these well-intended changes go over will rest on refs' shoulders. Any player who is one away from the 'penalty threshold' would inevitably feel like he's skating on thin ice.

One can guess how many of the league's active players have received the news; Erie Otters defenceman Cory Genovese, on his Twitter, blasted OHL commissioner David Branch for "ruining junior hockey. If you're scared to get hurt or scared your son will get hurt, sign up for a different sport." It's human nature to resist change when one is told it's for his own good.

By and large, though, all 20 teams have learned to live with the measures intended to curb excessive fighting and checks to the head. There needs to be further study to see how many players would have been suspended in 2013-14 if the new rules had existed, although that would manually tabulating data from 680 game summaries. One would presume the OHL had at least a ballpark estimate on how many games would have been lost before it passed these measures.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.