Naylor: OHL has fighting rule in effect...will NHL follow?

David Naylor
10/24/2012 2:56:17 PM
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When the Ontario Hockey League introduced its new rule which suspends players who exceed 10 fights in a season, it seemed reasonable that its effects might not surface until the latter months of the schedule.

But just five weeks into the 2012-13 season, the new measure has had a dramatic influence on the numbers of fights across the league.

Fighting in the OHL is down 32.1 per cent after 119 games, compared to the same number of one year ago.

That's far more than most people expected, including OHL commissioner Dave Branch, who championed the fight rule during the off-season as a means of trying to remove the one-dimensional tough guy from within the league's ranks.

"I'm surprised, I really am," said Branch. "I didn't think there would be that kind of immediate, shall we say, impact on the number of (fights)."

As Branch notes, only eight per cent of OHL players last season exceeded the 10-fight barrier, which translates to 25 players who exceeded the 10-fight threshold in 20011-12.

But the new rule seems to have given players accross the league pause as to how quickly they want to jump into the fray.

"I think just having the rule itself almost deters it," said Oshawa Generals head coach D.J. Smith.

A reduction in staged fighting between two designated tough guys is one of two areas the OHL is hoping the new rule will impact. (Though the OHL has had rules against staged fights or off-the-whistle fights for years, it's often difficult to determine those from spontaneous fights during the heat of battle.)

The other area is deterring players from responding to a good, clean body check of a teammate by challenging the hitter to a fight.

Where at one time, clean body checks were accepted as part of the game, these days they are often answered with immediate reprisals in the form of fisticuffs. That's a trend that concerns the OHL and one it would like to curb.

It believes that consistent application of the instigator rule, combined with the 10-game fight limit, will reduced the number of instances when a player has to answer the bell because of delivering a clean and fair bodycheck.

"That player who has a clean body check and suddenly turns around and there's a player waiting for him there to fight … that fight, if there is one, won't count in his total number (of fights)," said Branch. "And hopefully that, in some way, will take away from these needless fights because there's been a clean body check."

How effective that has yet been is tough to say since there have certainly been instances this season where a clean hit does indeed turn into a fight. However, the fact that nearly 27 per cent of all fights have involved an instigator penalty so far this season suggests the OHL is sticking to its determination to single-out those who reply to legal hits with fisticuffs.

What's yet to be determined is how players will adust as they get closer to the 10-game limit. (As of now Sarnia's Joshua Chapman leads the OHL with five). But it seems reasonable to assume the rate of fights will decline further as the season moves on.

Although players are hesitant to suggest they won't stick up for a teammate just to avoid a suspension.

"I hope I don't have to come to that point," said Oshawa General defenceman Scott Sabourin. "If something happens out there and I have to stick up for a teammate or whatever the case is, I mean it's going to happen. Let's just hope I don't get to that point in the season."

Overall response to the rule has been positive, although some - like Windsor coach Bob Boughner - wonder whether the 10-fight threshold might be too low to allow the next generation of NHL enforcers practice their craft.

"I was in favour of some type of rule," said Boughner. "I thought 10 might be a little light, to be honest with you, just because of the fact that some of these guys are going to get to the next level and have to be some type of role player." 

But in terms of priorities, the OHL is far more concerned with improving its image with the next generation of players (and more importantly, their parents) than it is with ensuring the next generation of NHL enforcers are getting enough opportunities with the gloves off.

The NHL has been watching the OHL's initiative but Colin Campbell, NHL director of hockey operations, notes there are differences between the two leagues that need to be taken into consideration.

Those include the fact that NHL games have fewer fights than those in major junior, pro hockey doesn't have to be concerned with players of different ages fighting one another and that NHL teams could get around the impact of a suspended enforcer by simply calling up another a tough guy from the AHL to replace him.
But he is by no means against the OHL's attempt to take serial fighters out of the game.
"For those who think fighting has a place in the game, I think this (rule) is an important element to preserve it because you want to preserve the combustible fight but get rid of the one-dimensional player," said Campbell. "We haven't discussed fighting lately with the GM's but from a hockey operations point of view we are supportive. When we get a chance we can discuss the OHL's use of this rule."

Considering its effectiveness and the generally positive response from the stakeholders, its fair to ask why such a measure took so long to implement?

And what reason there is for other leagues - including the NHL - not to follow suit?

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