Fighting in Junior hockey is on the way out. Or at least it will be if USA Hockey and Hockey Canada get their way.
A recent New York Times story documented the efforts of USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to ban fighting at the Junior level. It is sure to be a hot button topic and met with passionate resistance from perhaps many fans, coaches and players.
In the new climate of heightened sensitivity surrounding injuries and fighting in hockey, this is a topic I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on. In fact, I wrote about this very topic in the wake of the tragic deaths of Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. It was admittedly knee-jerk on my part. Drawing conclusions and maybe making too many generalizations, but the heart of the piece was about curtailing fights in Junior hockey.
I have no issue with fighting in professional hockey. Those guys get paid to do what they do. Some make a very comfortable living. In the small markets of the minor leagues, fighting is probably a big factor in what keeps people herding through the turnstiles.
It’s a different story in Junior hockey. These kids don’t get paid (for the most part). While fighting might fill a few seats here and there, the more significant number of people who go to USHL games are families looking to have a little fun at the arena. Maybe it’s different in the Canadian Hockey League, but I’d imagine a good deal of the folks heading to rinks across the little big towns in Canada are going to get a glimpse of future NHL stars. Whether those future stars knock the snot out of each other is irrelevant to their enjoyment.
Besides, who over the age of 20 would want to admit that the reason they go to Junior hockey games is to watch a 17-year-old get pumped by a 19-year-old?
Soon, it appears Junior hockey will be a fight-free zone in both the United States and Canada, which is a very good thing in my opinion.
The Times article focused a bit more on the heightened sensitivity toward concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has often been linked with concussions, but concussions are not the sole cause of CTE.
CTE can be more closely linked to repeated head trauma, which will not necessarily result in concussions.
It is very important to understand that the rule to ban fighting is indeed a plot to reduce concussions, but more specifically, it is a quest to reduce instances of contact to the head. Fighting will not always, but often result in one or more blows to the head. If you are unaware, every fighter’s goal is to connect his fist with his opponent’s face as many times as possible.
Another huge factor in this debate is the difference between the teenage brain and the adult brain. The teenage brain is more succeptable to brain trauma and yes, concussions, putting them at a greater risk for CTE.
According to Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, younger brains are not as myelinated, meaning they have less insulation than brains of adults. Also, boys’ necks are weaker than those of adults. Their heads are disproportionately large for their bodies.
“That sets up a younger person to have injuries to the brain that are greater than those sustained at a later age from the same force,’’ Cantu said. “It takes more force later on to produce the same injury.
“It’s important not to have a head injury at any age. It’s particularly important not to have it at a young age. Fighting is certainly to be discouraged, especially at young ages, for those reasons.’’
Junior hockey players’ brains bounce around an awful lot already, thanks to the contact inherent in hockey. It is difficult to eliminate that. It is far easier to take out the specific occasion where contact to the head is not only allowed, but basically a necessity for success.
According to the data compiled by the New York Times through Sunday, there have been a total of 2,305 fights in the top five North American Junior leagues this year. Here’s how it breaks down: 1. WHL (704), 2. OHL (574), 3. QMJHL (408) , 4. NAHL (405), 5. USHL (214).
The fighting proponents have often correctly argued that most concussions occur due to the natural contact of the game and not fighting. That is generally true, however knowing what we know about CTE, any amount of contact to the head can be bad.
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada can point to 2,305 instances so far this year, in which contact to the head could have simply been avoided all together with a new rule. To significantly lower that number would go a long way in protecting players.
“Fighting is part of the game.” That will be the argument you hear every five minutes about this. I believe there is a place for it in the pro game, where there are million-dollar assets in need of protecting and I have no problem with adults policing the game. If these guys get hurt fighting, there is a safety net in that they are under contract and will continue to earn a living.
However, there isn’t a level of hockey where fighting has put a stop to dirty and injurious hits. If the bad hits and “taking of liberties” has been at all curtailed, it has been minimal at best. There are questionable hits weekly in hockey’s most visible league. The threat of fights clearly isn’t stopping anyone.
Another common argument is that removing fighting would lead to more stick work and more dangerous hits. There is a potentially valid concern there, but I’d argue that there won’t be 2,305 instances of hits resulting in contact to the head.
Furthermore, should a 16-to-20-year-old kid with ill-controlled emotions be in charge of policing the game? No. That’s why there are referees. If it means stricter penalties for stick work, roughing and dirty hits, then make those rules.
Hockey is emotional and the blood will boil. There are going to be times where players snap. However, if a major, plus a game misconduct is the penalty, perhaps the players will be forced to find an alternative and perhaps more constructive method. If they can’t find an alternative, they drop the gloves and take the five and the game. In that instance, fighting isn’t completely quashed, but it is significantly curtailed. If there’s no other option for a player and he feels he needs to fight, then he can deal with the consequences.
Admittedly, a rule change will only go so far. A culture change will also have to take place. The one thing I’ve heard a few times is that taking fighting out will cause players to play with less respect. Why does it have to be that way? Why does fighting alone command respect? When was respecting your opponent optional in any sport? Relying on fighting to keep respect in the game sounds profoundly silly to me. What have we taught our young hockey players?
The culture change may not take terribly long, as players who were allowed to fight get cycled out. Players coming into Junior hockey all come from leagues that do not allow fighting. It won’t be much of a transition those players to go from a league that doesn’t allow fighting to go to another league that doesn’t allow fighting.
There is also an argument that fighting is a skill that is to be developed and if you take it out of Junior hockey, these players won’t know how to defend themselves when they get to the big leagues. Enter Bob Boughner, head coach of the Windsor Spitfires:
“We’re on a very, very dangerous slope,” Boughner said.
“We’re preparing guys for the next level and if you toughen the rules and get rid of it (fighting) in the game, it would have to coincide with the NHL and AHL.
“If they’re not doing it, then you’re putting kids (looking to go pro) in a tough situation.”
A fair point, but George Parros seemed to have a pretty good idea about how to defend himself. He did play one year of Junior hockey (for the former Chicago Freeze in the NAHL), where he fought, but he spent the following four years at Princeton, where he couldn’t fight. Parros had a few years in the minors where he was able to further hone his craft. He’s not an overly skilled guy, but clearly someone saw enough toughness in him to give him a shot without seeing him fight as much.
Most players who will have to drop the gloves regularly in the NHL aren’t skilled enough to make it directly from Junior to the pros. Let them hone their fighting skills in the minors, where they’ll get a paycheck, if you’re so concerned they won’t know how to defend themselves.
Is this going to limit opportunities for less-skilled kids as Boughner alleges? It just might. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of this, but it is a pill worth swallowing for the vast majority of players it will protect. If a player is good enough to play Junior hockey, he will have a place whether he can fight or not and will still have the opportunity to further his career.
Do the players want this? Of course not, as documented in The New York Times by Jeff Z. Klein. They feel they are old enough and experienced enough to protect and defend themselves. They might be right. However, what the players may not realize is that what happens to their brain at 16 can have a profound affect on their life at 50.
There is an inherent risk every time a player hits the ice that he will receive head trauma or a concussion. There is an inherent risk in getting out of bed in the morning. Those are the types of risk you can’t do a lot to manage, though both USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have taken significant steps in the last year to strengthen penalties for checks that make contact with the head.
I have been a huge proponent of managing risk in the game. There are 2,305 specific instances one can point to in Junior hockey this year, where the administrators have a chance to not only manage risk, but eliminate it. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are only doing what they feel is in the best interest of their Junior hockey players and their long-term safety.
This is an issue that will be debated passionately, but the fighting proponents better prepare for Junior hockey without fighting. It is not a matter of “if” it will be eliminated, it is a matter of “when.”
Everyone loves a good fight, but is it really necessary for a 16- or 17-year-old kid to prove himself with his fists and not his hockey ability? It shouldn’t be and won’t be very soon.