OHL, USHL Putting Emphasis on Player Safety with New Initiatives

Wednesday, two of the top junior hockey leagues in the world made significant announcements regarding player safety. The Ontario Hockey League unveiled new rules in an effort to curtail “needless” fighting by allowing a player 10 fighting majors before suspensions start getting handed down. The USHL, mere hours later, announced that it has created a new pilot program that will put an added focus on player safety and injury prevention.

Both maneuvers could prove significant going forward as Junior hockey has not been immune to the same concerns regarding concussions and other head injuries the NHL has experienced in recent years. The big difference is that these kids, while granted the benefits of team-funded medical care, don’t get paid despite the high risks involved in the game.

There’s very little safety net for the players in these crucial developmental seasons. All are playing to attract the eyes of scouts in the hopes of being drafted. An injury for a player at any time could derail development, prematurely end a career with very little fall back plan or worse, have long-lasting effects on his health.

With that in mind, it is up to the league leaders to protect the players it is profiting off of for next to nothing more than a roster spot and opportunity in return. These steps taken by league leadership in both the OHL and USHL could prove revolutionary in the end, making their players safer and their product even better.

Coming up at the jump, a look at the specifics of each new initiative and more on why each is important.

OHL Strengthens Fighting Rules

The OHL has often been on the forefront of player safety in junior hockey, but hasn’t always gotten it right. There have been occasions where rules haven’t gone far enough and sometimes there are suspensions that go too far, but the effort has always been there to make the game safer.

OHL commissioner David Branch has been on record for well over a year on the fact that an appetite to not eliminate, but curtail fighting, exists among Junior hockey execs and fans, even if it is perhaps a minority appetite.

What the OHL has done is somewhat of a compromise, one that is sure to upset the pro-fighting crowd and the anti-fighting crowd. One side will say it’s too far, the other not enough, but in my estimation, it’s just right.

Here are the specifics from the OHL:

  1. If a player is assessed a fighting major for the 11th – 15th time during the regular season, such player is assessed an automatic two (2) game suspension for each additional fighting major in addition to any other penalties assessed.
  2. If a player is assessed a fighting major for the 16th time or more during the regular season, such player is assessed an automatic two (2) game suspension and the hockey club is fined $1,000.00 for each additional fighting major in addition to any other penalties assessed.
  3. If a player is deemed to be the instigator in any of the fights above the ten (10) game threshold, such player would be assessed an automatic four (4) game suspension in addition to any other penalties assessed.

Note: If a player is instigated upon, the fighting major is not included in the player’s total number of fights.

As Branch told the media Wednesday, this will help crack down on “needless altercations,” of which there are likely many.

As Neate Sager pointed out in the story attached to that link, the OHL’s leading fighter had 37 fighting majors. How many were warranted? How many were staged? How many did this player instigate? These are all questions that will be answered by this added monitoring in 2012-13, which is probably a good thing. Players now have a budget essentially, which means they’ll have to pick and choose their spots.

“Ninety-two per cent of our players are involved in less than 10 fights [in a season],” said Branch. “Sixty-six per cent of our players are involved in less than two fights in a given season.”

This likely won’t help appease the anti-fighting crowd, but what it does is takes a step. While medical research is continually showing fighting in junior hockey could be significantly more dangerous than anyone is willing to admit, curtailing the overall number of altercations is positive.

The OHL’s research apparently showed fighting ranks third or fourth in terms of the concussions caused in the league according to Branch (also from Sager). It doesn’t sound like much, but could easily slide further down the rankings by this new rule and eliminated by an outright ban.

Here’s my biggest problem with the fighting debate. The word concussion should be removed from it entirely. As the extensive research at Boston University has shown, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, defined in depth here, does not require concussions to develop, particularly within teenagers. It is important to remember that the teenage brain is more susceptible to injury than the adult brain. As BU’s Dr. Robert Cantu told the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa last August:

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.’’

This research, which is endorsed the world around by medical professionals, is important. Not once is the word concussion mentioned in that series of statements from Cantu.

In the debate for and against fighting, there needs to be a distinction between concussions and head trauma, as they are not the same. The proponents of fighting who point to the infrequency of head injuries stemming from scraps don’t have brain scanners. There may be no visible damage and therefore the false security that nothing bad happened.

It does not require a concussion to constitute brain trauma. Repeated hits to the head, which can and do happen often in fights can do more damage to players of this age than it can to adults. Such head trauma can potentially cause effects that may not surface until later. Therefore limiting the number of occurances of fights limits the risk attached to such an issue.

The OHL has taken a step here that is equal parts small and significant, if that makes any sense. It does not eliminate fighting, which there is a good chance that will never happen anyway. However it will essentially require players, 16-20 in age, with still developing brains and bodies, to limit the number of times they put their face and their head at risk for more serious injury.

Fewer instances of fighting will not hinder a fan’s enjoyment. It will not hinder a player’s development. It will manage risk and that’s about all you can ask for at this point of what is sure to be a lengthy ongoing debate.

USHL Pilot Program Could Bring More Change

The steps being taken by the USHL currently are also positive for the junior game as a whole, though the impact of what the league does may not be felt immediately.

This from the USHL:

Working with USA Hockey as a pilot project, and in consultation with the National Hockey League, the NCAA, and the League’s equipment supplier CCM, the USHL will implement a series of initiatives focused on five areas:  new regulations governing dangerous play; continuous monitoring, review, early intervention and supplementary discipline by the Commissioner’s Office; regular and collaborative conferencing among the League’s Hockey Operations Group, Competition Committee,  head coaches, officials, and players to review and improve play; a focus on the improvement of equipment; and better and more consistent injury tracking.

There’s a lot in there in terms of the whats. Here is some of the how:

…The League has specified a number of what it terms “dangerous play” minor penalties (ie: elbowing, head contact, kneeing), which it will monitor and review together with all major penalties – both fighting and non-fighting – throughout the course of the season.  Players accumulating multiple penalties will be notified and addressed by the Commissioner’s office with an eye toward early intervention and education, and multiple penalties in any category will be subject to supplementary discipline.

This is a significant step for two reasons. First, the league is determined to provide more oversight, which will help bring about stricter supplemental discipline. Secondly, the fact-gathering that comes along with this will allow the league to more closely track how the players play and if there are problems. They can tally up more closely the number of “dangerous plays.” By monitoring fights, they can determine how many are born out of frustration or retribution and how many are staged or fights that could be deemed unnecessary. This will allow the league to make better decisions going forward, armed with a year’s worth of research. That research could lead to rule changes that make the game safer.

At this point, it doesn’t change any of the rules in place, but the continual monitoring of dangerous plays and fighting could lead to alterations.

More from the USHL’s announcement:

As part of the player safety initiative, every USHL player, official, and coach will be issued a Hockey Education and Respect Guidebook, detailing the new regulations and procedures, with a single underlying theme of respect for the opposing team and for the game.  Commissioner’s Office staff will meet individually with each team during the USHL Fall Classic to explain the new regulations and disciplinary procedures.  The League’s Hockey Operations Department and head of officials will then conduct regular telephone and video conferences throughout the season with the League’s head coaches, general managers, and player captains and representatives, reviewing calls and discipline, and refining the new system.

As we saw in the NHL, education isn’t always going to work. The players are going to play how they play and sometimes that means they will play recklessly. However, players may be a little more impressionable and a little less set in their ways at this age and can make effective change in order to be a more responsible player.

The continual discussion is likely what is most important however. The league is being proactive during a season and involving everyone in that discussion, which will lead to more diverse viewpoints and a more collective initiative in moving the game and the league forward with new rules.

The USHL is also working hand-in-hand with CCM to ensure that the equipment provided players is properly fitted and up to the ever evolving standards of safety. Additionally, the USHL has made an interesting decision regarding face shields:

As part of that equipment focus, and again with the support of USA Hockey pilot project status, all USHL players, and not simply 18-year-old and older players, will be given the option of wearing the approved Oakley three-quarter face shield rather than a full cage, which provides a better visual field for players and, in the eyes and research of many hockey industry experts, will cut down on injury-insensitive play at the elite level.

Players of any age now have the option of going cage or 3/4 shield, but will not be able to wear half shields, which were allowable for players 18 and up in the past. Most players, regardless of are going shield, if we know anything about hockey players. This initiative should be among the most monitored of any in place.

The USHL says that many “industry” experts feel the shields will lead to safer play. Note industry and not medical. Industry experts are coaches, administrators and equipment manufacturers who are operating on assumption, as there has yet to be any significant medical research that removing cages will decrease injuries and bring about more respectful play.

In fact, in a three-year observational study conducted by Dr. Michael Stuart of the Mayo Clinic, there was an injury rate of 9.4 per 1000 player hours in Junior A hockey. Surprisingly, just over half of those injuries were results of collisions. Unsurprisingly, the head and shoulders were the most frequent location of injuries, while the most common injury of all was facial lacerations. Stuart felt at the time there needed to be more research, but has been vocal that more, not less facial protection would likely trim the number of injuries suffered in a given year.

Granted, facial lacerations, while potentially serious are of less concern than issues involving the brain.

The thought is that players have an aura of invincibility when wearing a cage, but suddenly lose that when they are wearing a shield. If nothing else, they’re more mindful of their own face, but this is an assumption that is unsupported by intensive research. There just hasn’t been enough yet.

That said, the USHL going to a uniformed 3/4 shield for all players, if the players choose, allows this whole theory to be tested. If the injury rate drops, particularly those involving head trauma of any kind, then there will be reason to believe the industry experts were correct. The jury is out until then.

As this is a pilot program, there can and likely will be changes. The NCAA tabled the implementation of 3/4 shields in the hopes that there would be more research. Now they’ll get a year’s worth of it.

Though perhaps a little disturbing this rule will be tested on teenagers, there’s really no way around it. The 3/4 shield is a good half-way point, too. It offers more protection than the halfers currently allowed, so this compromise in the name of research will hopefully prove fruitful one way or the other.

Both the USHL and OHL are taking a proactive approach to making the junior game safer. It is easy to forget that our junior players are mostly kids looking for an opportunity. Their emotions and judgment are easily compromised and this additional monitoring can only bring about positive change, even if its only more information than we currently have.

About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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