September 20, 2011
David Branch says he hasn't been as forthright as his counterpart to the east, Gilles Courteau, has been about abolishing fighting in major junior hockey. Nor does the Ontario Hockey League commissioner believe a ban is needed.
"It's not something that we've had on our agenda directly, shall we say," Branch said during a conference call held on the eve of the OHL regular season. "Our area of focus and concern has been head injuries. The leading factors for head injuries are clearly not as a result of fighting. First and foremost, that should be understood. We've been going through an educational process, we've put in some new rules, we're really focused on the health and welfare of our players."
It has been shown that only about 10 per cent of head injuries in hockey occur in fight. The counter-point is any small measure to reduce the possibility of a teenaged player suffering brain trauma probably should be taken. Branch's take did suggest, as many have, that the market may drive whether the OHL or parent Canadian Hockey League ultimately enacts a ban. If the public is satisfied enough's been done to limit it and attitudes have changed, that might suffice at a league level.
"[Fighting] used to be a front-line item and a number of steps have been taken with fighting to curtail these types of altercations," Branch added. "That whole issue of it being part of the game plan is now antiquated, I would suggest. Fighting has been on a decline in our league, if you look at that fact that in approximately 50 per cent of our games, there are no fights."
The numbers at hockeyfights.com don't make for as clear-cut a picture. By its tabulating, there were 101 fewer fighting majors during the OHL regular season compared to the season prior, a 7 per cent decline. That was still relatively high compared to recent years.
It is important, for those who are of the belief it's outlived its usefulness or find it distasteful, to know change is usually incremental. It doesn't always move in a straight line, either, so it's probably a little glib to say the day when fighting is removed from major junior hockey seems farther off than it did after Courteau's semi-bombshell earlier this month. Branch, whose league was an early adopter among North American leagues in punishing contact to the head, acknowledged junior teams have somewhat responded to changing public attitudes.
"You look at the world junior championship, no fighting. You look at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, no fighting ... I think that's an illustration that our fans love to watch like the skill, speed, toughness, the contact. I think that old attitude that we need fighting to sell our game is certainly ill-founded."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.