Now that the Ontario Hockey League will suspend players for reaching a certain number of fights in a season, it's a safe bet that fighting's days are numbered in major junior hockey. But change isn't made by fiat or in one fell swoop.
On Wednesday, OHL commissioner David Branch noted his league's new rule targeting "needless fighting," which calls for a minimum two-game suspension each time a player exceeds a limit of 10 fighting majors in a season was part of an "evolutionary process." In other words, the political capital is not there for an outright ban, but this an incremental change in that direction. The OHL is the first major junior league to enact such a rule, although the Canadian Junior Hockey League and five of its Junior A leagues passed a stricter rule in 2010-11 and have enhanced it for this season (players can be suspended starting with their fifth fight of the years). Whether it is emulated throughout North America remains to be seen.
First, the rationale for the rule, then some technical explanations.
"There are those who see no need for it in our game," Branch said on a conference call where he confirmed earlier reports about the new 10-fight threshold. "But we also recognize that as you move forward with any rule adjustment, you have to mindful of, 'Okay, if you remove this, what happens there?' The classic example is what some of us with the new standards with the game being opened up [by a crackdown on obstruction starting in 2005], the incredible speed at which he's played which may be a contributing factor to head injuries. There's a lot of things to consider any time you're talking about a rule [no automatic ejection for fighting] which has been part of the game for so long."
The rule is fairly straightforward. A player can have up to 10 fights — altercations where the other player receives an instigator penalty do not count against the total — without directly being suspended for it. Starting with his 11th fight, it's an automatic two-game suspension each time. Starting with his 16th, the player's team will be fined $1,000 each time. (The 'instigator exception' applies throughout.)
Thirty-one players in the 20-team OHL reached double-digits in fighting majors last season. Only five had 16 or more fights. Only Windsor's Ty Bilcke (37 fighting majors), Erie's Johnny McGuire (23) and Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Derek Mathers (22) of the Peterborough Petes threw down more than 20 times.
Branch said that convinced he and the league's board of governors to set the threshold at 10 fights. A possible unintended consequence could be that more fights will have a clear instigator, or that more instigator penalties are assessed.
"Ninety-two per cent of our players are involved in less than 10 fights [in a season]," he said. "Sixty-six per cent of our players are involved in less than two fights in a given season."
"[This] is an area we have chosen to look at to hopefully create more opportunity for players to come into our league with fear of incidents of needless altercations," Branch added.
Each major junior league would have to adapt its own rule. Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau said his league, which had a lower rate of fights, is not contemplating a similar rule. No QMJHL player had more than 19 fights in 2011-12, which Courteau called a step in a good direction.
"There's always room for improvement," Courteau said. "At the end of each season, our hockey [competition] committee is looking at the situation and making recommendations to our board of governors. Right now, with the fighting rules we have as a league, we're very satisfied by what we have in place."
Branch acknowledged that fighting is not a leading cause of head injuries in hockey. It is an element that can be controlled for, compared to what happens during the flow of play in the world's fastest-moving team sport.
"This rule was not solely designed to deal with the concern about concussions," Branch said. "In fact, our statistics show us that fighting is about third or fourth of factors that cause concussions. But it is there, it is a positive in the area of head injuries. That whole issue of head injuries and concussion is No. 1 on our agenda moving forward. We just hope that all leagues, all levels would share the mutual discussion."
For clarity's sake, here is how the new rule works:
— A fight where the other player receives an instigator penalty does not count against a player's total of fights. That is designed to keep a player on the verge of being suspended from being goaded into a fight. "That was obviously discussed," Branch said. "It's hopeful that will help alleviate that from happening."
— A player will receive an automatic four-game ban if deemed the instigator in any of the fights above the 10-game threshold.
— Players will enter the playoffs with a clean record. Only one player, Ottawa's Dalton Smith, had more than two fighting majors during the 2012 playoffs.
— Why 10? "There was some discussion of lowering it but we thought let's start it here, this is an evolutionary process and let's see where this takes us," Branch said.
(All fighting statistics from hockeyfights.com.)
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.