Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Helmets On, Fighting Down

David Branch, Commissioner of the OHL, has never been one to shy away from making tough decisions. He's led the OHL for over 25 years, and he's seen a number of ups and downs in that league. He has also been the President of the Canadian Hockey League since 1996, so he's had hands-on experience in being involved with the three major junior leagues in Canada. David Branch knows hockey, and there's no denying that. However, his announcement today in the aftermath of Don Sanderson's passing raised a few eyebrows, to say the least.

Fighting in junior hockey has been around since the formation of the leagues. Players want to show that they have the toughness and dogged determination to overcome any odds to achieve their dreams of playing in the NHL. There are World Junior Championship roster spots up for grabs as well, an honour that every great player wants to have bestowed upon him. However, with the toughness and determination in the players came harder hits and more questionable hits. David Branch has been the conscience in junior hockey, and he deserves commendation for his announcement today for several reasons.

First, here is the announcement that was made today from the OHL Commissioner that go into effect as of Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 12:01am in the OHL.

"If a player should remove his helmet or undo his chinstrap prior to or during an altercation, such player shall receive a game misconduct in addition to any other penalties assessed and an automatic one (1) game suspension. If a player should remove his helmet or undo his chinstrap prior to entering into an altercation, and his opponent does not remove his helmet, the player removing his helmet shall receive a two minute minor penalty, a game misconduct penalty in addition to any other penalties assessed and an automatic one (1) game suspension.

"If a player should remove an opponent's helmet or undo an opponent's chinstrap prior to or during an altercation, such player shall receive an automatic game misconduct penalty in addition to any other penalties assessed and a one (1) game suspension.

"If during the course of an altercation a player or player's helmets should become dislodged, the linesmen are to intervene immediately."

Now, you're probably reading that rule and shaking your head if you're a traditionalist, and I get that. In fact, it's the first thing I did. Players routinely take their helmets off to fight as a show of respect so that the players don't break their hands on a helmet or visor, and that will still be an option in the NHL. It just won't be an option in the OHL unless someone wants a night off in the press box.

I, however, want to move this argument in a different direction that I think everyone can agree with.

Junior hockey is about player development. It's about developing good fundamental skills, solid skating techniques, and playing at a higher level than previously seen. Nowhere does junior hockey encourage, promote, or tolerate fighting, and most of the major offenders are punished accordingly - Jonathan Roy knows all about this. In the development of the skill set necessary for the NHL, it is the OHL's responsibility to ensure the safest standards possible so that someone's dream isn't cut short by an injury or accident. And that's what David Branch is doing - ensuring that every player has a shot at playing in the NHL.

This isn't the first time that David Branch has changed the way the game is played to better the safety of the players. He was the first person to institute madantory neck guards in his league after the scary Richard Zednik accident last season. Branch didn't want to see any horrific incidents on the ice in the OHL, so he did exactly what any parent would do - every player will wear one, or they will not play in the OHL.

Branch instituted a two-minute penalty for head checks for any contact with the head. That includes any sort of contact to the head on a clean hit as well. With the number of concussions in children rising, Branch did what any concerned parent would do and discouraged any contact with a player's head by penalizing the team. Considering that London, home of the OHL's Knights, is hosting the Hockey Concussion Summit on January 17, this move came long before the Summit meeting was even being planned, showing just how forward-thinking David Branch is.

Branch is also notorious for handing out harsh suspensions for conduct that is detrimental to the game and his league. Branch suspended London Knights' player Dan Buccella for 15 games in 2001 when Buccella jumped a Guelph Storm player and laid a beating on him. Peterborough Petes forward Steve Downie was handed a five-game suspension for jumping Belleville Bulls captain Andrew Gibbons in 2006. Conor O'Donnell of the Windsor Spitfires was suspended for two games after he threw a water bottle at the Sarnia Sting bench during a melee last March. Kingston Frontenacs defenceman Zach Fenwick received a 15-game suspension for sucker-punching Oshawa Generals forward Conor Stokes in November.

What David Branch has done, to flip the coin metaphorically, is take something out the game that fans pay to see. You can't tell me that a good hockey fight doesn't churn up the testosterone and get the blood pumping. Heck, the UFC is a multi-billion dollar industry, so we know there's something inherently appealing about a mano-a-mano donnybrook. Don Cherry's Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Hockey videos feature the best NHL fights of the year, so there's a niche there for fighting.

However, the fans come back to see teams win, not to see fights. In the big picture, David Branch is telling everyone that skill will always win out over fisticuffs no matter how much we want to see a good ol' hockey fight. And, honestly, nothing brings a crowd together like an electrifying goal.

I think that David Branch has made a good move, albeit a controversial one. Again, junior hockey is for development. If a player wants to fight, he can do whatever amount of knuckle-chucking in the NHL or AHL or where ever he lands once he has graduated from the OHL. Until then, though, David Branch makes the rules, and I think this rule will go a long way in removing some of the skirmishes that turn into something ugly in junior hockey games.

What is right isn't always popular, and what is popular isn't always right. David Branch, in my view, has done the right thing... as unpopular as it may be.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Jibblescribbits said...

I like what this guy has done. Leagues should be most concerned with the safety of their players. If they want young players to learn how to properly fight they should justs end them to Boogard's school =)

One thing I would like to see is some innovation on visors. I'd like to see a company come up with a visor that could be easily detached for a fight, but stay on for most of play. Some sort of clip-on or something that protects the players form errant sticks and other hazards.

Good stuff Teebz

Unknown said...

My concern with a rule like this, particularly at the NHL level, is visors. Personally, I think it's asinine that so many NHL players don't wear a visor. Sticks and pucks to the eyes are a risk that I would be much more concerned with as a player, and I would be fine with mandating the equipment as required. A rule like this just gives those players one more reason not to opt for a visor. My ideal solution would be a helmet design that allows the visor to snap off while leaving the helmet on. Thus, you could prevent head vs. ice impact injuries (which is actually what caused the death), and still allow fighting.

Teebz said...

Jibble: I think that visor innovations will be the next major step in hockey. Every league on the planet requires players to wear one except the NHL (and possibly the KHL, but I can't read Cyrillic - LOL).

Brock: I agree with the concern. I've cut my hand on the bottom edge of a visor when I was playing, and it's not particularly pleasant. As I said above, I think that might be the next major innovation. However, the OHL and AHL have mandatory visor rules, so the only place you'll see players take them off is at the NHL level... if they make it.

It's tough to take something like fighting out of the game, but developing skilled players is far more important for the game. Skill leads to creativity, and that's better for the game all-around.

Great comments, gentlemen!