USA Hockey’s Annual Congress was held in Colorado Springs, Colo., last week. The organization revealed that its playing membership was at an all-time high of 519,417, which is more than 8,000 players better than the previous high set in 2011-12 (more on the growth in a future post). The Congress also is an important week for changes to rules and there was one of great significance on the table.
USA Hockey’s board of directors, in conjunction with the council that oversees junior hockey in the country, reviewed new rules to curtail fighting at that level. The board approved stronger rules as they pertain to fighting at the Tier I (USHL) and Tier II (NAHL) over the weekend.
Starting in 2014-15, any fighting major in Tier I or Tier II junior hockey will be accompanied by a 10-minute misconduct — that is over and above the major, meaning a player would sit for a total of 15 minutes. There are expected to be a few more details to this that were not immediately released by USA Hockey, but this rule alone is an important first step toward curtailing fighting and I believe one day they will take it a step further with automatic game misconducts, but this is a good middle ground for now.
“Our efforts in player safety include a concerted focus on eliminating dangerous behavior in junior hockey,” said John Vanbiesbrouck, USA Hockey VP for the junior council and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer, in a statement. “We’re making significant and continued progress, and from my standpoint as a parent, that’s a real positive.”
The quote hints at least a little that there’s more to get done, but reaching this middle ground for now is going to be considered a success and a positive step for junior hockey.
By attaching a 10-minute misconduct to any fighting major, any player that wants to engage in a fight has to consider the consequences. The major is seen as worth it for a lot of guys, now they’ll sit for 15. That is a significant difference. Situation of the game, importance of the player to his team and other factors will almost certainly cut down on the number of fights.
At this point, this rule does not go far enough, in my opinion. The science and research done by leading concussion doctors and those in the field of sports medicine have shown a junior player is more susceptible to injuries related to head trauma than their professional counterparts.
This is not going to eliminate fighting from Junior, which I think one day will happen, but this is undoubtedly a positive step for USA Hockey to take on behalf of its junior leagues. I’ve written at length on this topic before, noting the reasons why junior hockey and fighting simply cannot mix any longer.
There is going to be a fear among owners of junior teams about what fewer fights will do to attendance, particularly in the rural markets where hockey on its own doesn’t sell. That’s fair. Those folks have to make money to operate teams and these are for-profit businesses after all.
I’ll contend that as long as these teams serve cold beer at games, they’re going to continue to draw decently well and most casual fans won’t even know that the leagues have stronger fighting rules. If there’s no fight, maybe they go home disappointed, but if their entertainment is tied to a couple of teenagers knocking the snot out of each other, then that’s a hockey fan I could stand to lose.
There’s also the view that curtailing fighting will result in more stick work and chippier play in games. If the referees do their job, however, which is to police the game, it will be punished appropriately. That is easier said than done, but that’s the standard that USA Hockey and its junior leagues are going to have to hold their officials to.
At this point, if a player really, really wants to fight. He still can and remain in the game, even with the new rules. But this notion that fighting does a good enough job of preventing other forms of dangerous play seems a farce. The leagues have to focus more on player discipline by way of suspensions and stiffer penalties to truly change attitudes. Letting the kids police themselves is absurd when you stop long enough to think about it.
The players are not going to be happy about this. Some coaches aren’t going to be happy about this, but you know who will be? The doctors who have worked so hard to present the information that the dangers of fighting for players of this age are far greater than previously thought.
A recent study conducted by the University of Ottawa showed that a punch to the jaw can is likely more dangerous, in terms of causing a concussion, than an open-ice hit to the head.
Researchers simulated the hits that commonly caused concussions in hockey players — a head-on check to the head; a fall to the ice; and a left or right hook to the jaw as thrown in a hockey fight — and measured the forces they delivered to a helmet rigged with sensors.
They found that the left or right hooks were by far the most likely to cause concussions, because of the sharp rotational forces they deliver to the brain.
“Boxers and fighters in hockey know that the way to knock someone out is to catch him with a hook, and down he goes,” said Blaine Hoshizaki, director of research at the university’s Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory. “And lo and behold, we found that the hook delivered more than twice the rotational acceleration than anything else. It’s the most effective way to give someone a concussion.”
Not every fight is going to include a right or left hook of course, but those that do open up a player to extreme danger for concussion.
Other research, presented earlier by Boston University’s Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading doctor in the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) presented the following in 2011 in an interview with the Boston Globe:
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.”
To me, at least, this is damning evidence that not taking a firmer stand on fighting in junior hockey is irresponsible at best. I am pleased to see a move toward stronger rules, but there’s still a ways to go.
Based on hockeyfights.com’s log, there were 226 fights in the USHL last season among the 16 teams in the league. The NAHL featured 348 fights spread out among 24 teams in 2013-14 according to the site. That’s 574 fights in the top domestic junior leagues in the United States last season alone and 574 instances where there is a higher risk of injury that really are unnecessary.
I’d say if that number drops by half, and really only then, this new rule will be considered successful. If not, then they may have to take it a step further as early as the following season. One junior entity is already ahead of the curve, however.
The Canadian Junior Hockey League adopted a “one-fight rule” earlier this year, which will be implemented for the first time across all CJHL leagues (Canadian Junior A) in 2015-16. Some of the member leagues have already adopted this rule which states a five-minute fighting major is coupled with an automatic ejection.
The CJHL took a bold, progressive step last fall by overwhelmingly passing that new rule. I believe you will see even more significant rules coming to the Canadian major junior leagues in the not-so-distant future as well (though I expect the push-back to be fierce).
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have actually held talks recently about working together to create uniform fighting rules across the junior ranks including the Canadian Hockey League, according to a source familiar with these conversations. There was no timetable put on this, but I’d expect things to start moving over the next few years. Hockey Canada is in the process of finding a new executive director after Bob Nicholson stepped down after a rather successful run earlier this spring. So this topic could be up for debate again before anything gets accomplished.
As the USHL in particular attempts to compete for players with the CHL, having stricter fighting rules may be viewed as a disadvantage. With the 10-minute misconducts, it’s really only a slight one at this point. It’s really only a five minute difference, which is pretty much nothing.
Should USA Hockey go even a step further and implement a rule similar to the CJHL’s and the CHL doesn’t, then I think there is a recruiting disadvantage there for sure. They will eventually have to decide if a recruiting disadvantage is worth not taking a progressive stand for the well-being of their players.
It’s likely going to take cooperation between USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to ever bring junior hockey fighting to an acceptable minimum. The CJHL is going to end up looking way ahead of the curve on this as rules tighten continent-wide in the next few years.
I know there are a lot of fight fans out there, but you are going to have to get used to the fact that fighting in junior hockey is on its way out. It may be a slow crawl over the next few years, but as research continues to pile up on what blows to the head do to the human brain and particularly a teenager’s brain, it will be more widely viewed that fighting in junior is nothing short of reckless, and at worst, shows negligence on the part of the powers that be that allow it.
This is going to be a slow-changing culture on fighting, but the fact of the matter is, the science will win over emotions and tradition every day of the week and should. The new rules is absolutely a positive step, but that’s all it is, a single step. There are more to take, but sometimes that first one is the hardest.