Wednesday, 12 November 2014

It's All Your Fault, OHL

Junior hockey fans held their collective breath on Tuesday night as it was announced that Erie Otters phenom Connor McDavid had injured his hand in a fight. Erie had a comfortable lead on the Mississauga Steelheads last night when Mississauga's Bryson Cianfrone threw a check on McDavid behind the net as he passed the puck out to the half-boards. The puck came back around the boards behind the net where McDavid whacked Cianfrone with his stick up high on his left arm - a little retaliation for the hit. Cianfrone, though, then whacks McDavid, and both players come nose to nose and toes to toes. Several punches to Cianfrone's head later, and the linesman guided McDavid to the penalty box while clutching his right hand. There's your story as McDavid is "out indefinitely" with a hand injury.

Wait! Not so, says Sportsnet scribe Damien Cox! The problem with McDavid's injury is a result of a combination of gladiatorial combat and old stereotypes imposed on him by the hockey pantheon according to Mr. Cox. Connor McDavid, the most polished of all the gems in the CHL, was lost to the unexplainable and barbaric ritual of fighting in hockey according to Mr. Cox. In fact, Mr. Cox writes,
Imagine what it says about a society that allows unpaid teenage boys to fight with their bare knuckles for the amusement of paying customers.

For all the good things there are about junior hockey in Canada, and there are many good things, this continues to be an appalling black mark on the sport at this level.

Yes, there's a lot less of it than there used to be. A lot less.

That there's any at all is sickening.
Wait a second. Hold on here. There's a lot less fighting than there used to be, yet this is still "sheer barbarity" according to our fair scribe? How is this an appalling black mark if OHL Commissioner David Branch has imposed some of the toughest penalties for fighting in hockey anywhere on the planet? All Mr. Cox has done is taken an isolated incident of the best player in junior hockey and turned it into a crusade against the CHL for allowing fighting in hockey.

Here's the thing: fighting actually isn't allowed in hockey! That's why players are penalized for doing it! That's why there are rules against it, and why most leagues are tightening the noose around fighters to ensure that hockey comes first. The fact that Mr. Cox has used Connor McDavid's injury to try and shame the OHL is shameful.

Let's go back to the video and watch what happened. I'm pretty sure that McDavid is no saint in this clip.

All McDavid has to do is skate away. Let Cianfrone have his little whack at the end, don't put your glove in his face, and don't let yourself be goaded into a fight. Your first OHL fight. Your first fight in your career where another teenager is trying to take your head off. McDavid was an active and willing participant in this scrap the moment his hands came up and towards Cianfrone's face. The slash he laid on Cianfrone after he took the hit started the dominos falling which resulted in McDavid's injury.

Mr. Cox writes, "Not one little bit of this superb player's game is about toughness, or being tough, or fighting. He won't ever bring spectators to an NHL rink with the promise he might fight. He will pack 'em in with his scoring talents and ingenuity." All of that is true. The problem is that he started the skirmish with Cianfrone when he slashed him. Cianfrone took exception, McDavid threw his hand in Cianfrone's face, and off came the gloves. So when Mr. Cox writes about how McDavid's game doesn't contain "toughness, or being tough, or fighting", he's right that his game doesn't contain those elements, but he's still a 17 year-old kid. They're just a tad unpredictable in their behavior most times.

Mr. Cox writes, "Was it McDavid's choice to fight? Ultimately, yes. But we know the pressure that is put on hockey players to 'man up' and drop the gloves, and we know of the sport's general indifference to the abuse heaped upon the better players by the less talented." This is such an ignorant, sweeping generalization that it astounds me that Mr. Cox has a job in sports. I'm quite certain no one in the Erie Otters organization has ever told McDavid that he should fight more, to "man up", or to show some toughness. The fact that the kid takes a ton of abuse from opponents on a nightly basis as the best junior player in Canadian major hockey is evidence enough of how tough he is. He needs to prove nothing when it comes to toughness, and everyone - including any scouts watching - would tell you that, Mr. Cox.

Secondly, McDavid actually started this fight. Watch the video above. He's no angel. He took a hit, slashed Cianfrone up high on the arm, Cianfrone responded to the slash, and then McDavid had his gloves in Cianfrone's face. Even if both players drop the gloves, McDavid has to know that his hands are worth more than just chucking knuckles at the top of a guy's head. Wrestle Cianfrone to the ground, and walk away! There's no need for McDavid to take this fight, but he instigated it. The fact that he stood in there is a good enough show of toughness considering this fight wouldn't have happened had he not slashed Cianfrone.

Mr. Cox writes, "We also know that there are knuckle-dragging scouts out there who would excitedly put a star beside McDavid's fight as though it represents his guts and desire. These are the same folks who see PIMs are a big plus with any player." This isn't the 1970s with the Broad Street Bullies, Mr. Cox. The fact that you wrote this shows how disassociated you are with the game today. All of the CHL teams that are exceptionally good base their game plans on skill and speed. In fact, Erie has the lowest team PIMs in the OHL's Western Conference at 210, and the second-lowest in all of the OHL. They are 16-1-1. Scouts aren't going to watch anyone on the Otters for their pugnacious skills.

Mr. Cox writes, "So if he's been injured badly in a fight, let's make sure the game, and the junior game, doesn't get away without taking significant responsibility. If you permit players to fight and remain in the game, to some degree you are promoting fighting, allowing it to be used as a tactic and encouraging players to fight. It's that simple." So when Vincent Lecavalier and Jerome Iginla fought in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, they both should have been tossed? When Sidney Crosby crotch-punched Boris Valabik a few years ago, Crosby should have been tossed? Look, none of those players have a long rap sheet of fights that can be pointed at and used as an example of "promoting fighting". One was a highly-intense game where emotions bubbled over, and the other was a player tired of the abuse and decided to do something about it. To try and spin fighting and allowing a fighter to serve his penalty as a way to promote fighting is one of the dumbest things I've ever read by Mr. Cox, and it really has me questioning how he arrives at his conclusions.

On top of that, the penalties for fighting a second time within the same OHL game have now reduced the chances of a repeat offender. As per the OHL rulebook, "The number of fighting majors that a player can receive in a game before a game misconduct is assessed shall be reduced from three (3) to two (2)", meaning that if you decide to drop the gloves a second time in the same game, you get an early dismissal from the game. Again, I'm not sure if Mr. Cox simply doesn't understand the rules in the OHL or completely ignores them, but he's way off the mark here.

Mr. Cox writes, "Surely an organization that can take drastic punitive action against teenagers who say inappropriate things on social media can take a similarly hard stand against bare-knuckle brawling." Yes, just like police can prevent fights outside bars by outlawing it. Or how police can prevent robberies by outlawing it. Or how there are no more murders because law enforcement takes a hard stand against murdering another human being. Just because it's not allowed doesn't mean it won't happen, and that's why there is a rulebook for hockey that contains the penalties that should be assessed if a player breaks the rules.

Idealism is a fantastic fantasy, but Mr. Cox needs to check back into reality. The cold, hard facts in this case are simple: McDavid instigated the fight, McDavid didn't back down, McDavid threw a number of punches, and now McDavid has a sore hand. No one, to my knowledge, had ever questioned McDavid's testicular fortitude at any point yet, but Mr. Cox seems to believe that the OHL and the hockey establishment played a large part in questioning McDavid's toughness. Again, the massive dissociation that Mr. Cox has from the actual men on the ground - scouts, coaches, players, and fans - is clearly evident in his outrageous claims.

As MacLean's magazine's Nick Taylor-Vaisey wrote on October 2, 2013, "[T]wo truths emerge: Fighting is a part of hockey. Everybody hates an injury." No one should be excited about Connor McDavid's injury, but it wasn't because junior hockey or the NHL had a hand in it in any way, shape, or form. To suggest that they do and all but absolve McDavid from any responsibility for his part in the fight is about as irresponsible as one can get.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Brian Wagner said...

I have been to almost every home game in Connor McDavid's OHL career. And I do believe the OHL has some responsibility for McDavid's injury.

I hope this doesn't make me sound like too much of a homer, but the league protects some players and teams more than others. If Connor McDavid played for London, for example, just across Lake Erie, he'd have the league's full protection. Looking at him sideways would get you a minor, and his own teammates would be more free to jump in (not to fight, but to shove and jostle) to protect him.

Officiating in the second half of last year taught the Otters that physical play was to be discouraged. The team, therefore, never developed the instinct to protect McDavid (or their 5'6" 16 year old leading goal scorer, Alex DeBrincat). This is not to imply that McDavid bears no responsibility in his own injury. He does. But so does his team and the league.

Teebz said...

Great comment, Brian. However, in this case - and only this case - McDavid started the fight. The OHL had nothing to do with the slash, the gloves in Cianfrone's face, or the number of punches McDavid threw.

You're absolutely right in that there are some differences with regards to teams - Philly and Boston play more physical than other NHL teams.

If you're right about the OHL treating Erie differently - and I have no reason not to believe you - then they do bear some blame overall.

But for McDavid's injury last night? No way. McDavid started that fight with his own choices after Cianfrone simply finished his check.

Teebz said...

Oh, and for Cox to use it as a crutch to shame the OHL is pretty cowardly.

Brian Wagner said...

Agreed. Last night's decision falls on McDavid. And the rhetoric being used across many media outlets using this case to emphasize the case to "get fighting out of hockey" is embarrassing.

It's so unbelievably easy to forget that stars are being made at a ridiculously young age. Then, culturally, we act surprised when a 17 year old makes a less than perfect decision. The common refrain right now is "McD should know better! Why is he fighting?!" Um...he's a kid. Why didn't he clean his room? Why did he only do half of his homework?

I guarantee he skated off the ice last night thinking some variation of "Damn, that was dumb." But I still feel the domino effect played a role... his team is not conditioned to get him out of bad situations. An organic, flow-of-the-game fight flared up and the Otters weren't ready to grab Cianfrone or McDavid to pull him away.

If there's an upside, this might have just made a few of the more casual fans learn McDavid's name half a season early. The headlines are everywhere and his return will be eagerly anticipated.