The age-old debate about whether to eliminate fighting from hockey was reopened last month with the tragic death of Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old defenceman with the OHA’s Whitby Dunlops.
Sanderson died after spending nearly three weeks in a coma, the result of hitting his head on the ice during an on-ice fight with a player from the Brantford Blast.
Moving quickly to address the issue, the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), the governing body for the majority of junior and senior level hockey teams in the province, last week announced new measures meant to curtail the number of fights.
With respect to fights in its games, the OHA will maintain its position on game ejections for fighting. In addition, the body has developed a graduated suspension policy for players who engage in fights that will go into effect beginning in the 2009-2010 season.
Under the new regulations, a player who engages in his third fight in a season will receive a one-game suspension. After his fourth fight, a player will receive an additional two-game suspension; after a fifth fight, a three-game suspension; a sixth fight will earn him an indefinite suspension requiring the player to show cause as to why he should be permitted to continue within the OHA program.
OHA president Brent Ladds is confident the changes will help reduce the number of dangerous incidents, such as falls, taking place on the ice.
“The issue that I think we’ve all agreed on is it has less of an opportunity of happening if we can reduce fighting,” said Ladds in an interview.
“I think they’re tied together: the falls to the ice and the helmets not in place, but it’s caused by a fight.”
Those who argue that fighting has a place in the game underscore the fact that most serious injuries occur not so much as a result of the punches that are dealt but the blows that players receive to their heads when they fall to the ice, helmetless. When engaged in bouts, hockey pugilists often attempt to remove their opponents’ helmets as well as their own before trading jabs.
“That’s the one thing you always worry about – you never seem to worry about the punches. You always seem to worry about the fall and players getting stepped on,” said Elmira Sugar Kings coach Geoff Haddaway.
The OHA said it will work with helmet manufacturers and the Canadian Standards Association to determine whether the current fastening systems for helmets can be improved.
Moving forward, if an OHA player intentionally removes his own helmet or undoes his chinstrap prior to or during a fight, the player will receive a gross misconduct (in addition to any other penalties assessed) and an automatic one-game suspension.
If a player intentionally removes his helmet or undoes his own chinstrap prior to a fight, and his opponent does not remove his helmet, the player removing his helmet or undoing his chinstrap will receive a two-minute minor penalty and a gross misconduct penalty in addition to any other penalties assessed and an automatic one-game suspension.
If a player intentionally removes an opponent’s helmet or undoes an opponent’s chinstrap prior to or during a fight, he will receive an automatic gross misconduct penalty in addition to any other penalties assessed and a one-game suspension.
The idea behind the OHA’s beefed-up helmet regulations is that fewer players will engage in fights, knowing that the majority of their blows will likely land on a hard plastic surface.
“I think that will lead to several players going, ‘OK, well, you know what? I don’t think my knuckles can take one more punch to a helmet’ … that might discourage some players from going out and doing that premeditated fight, rather than in the emotion of the game,” said Haddaway.
While fights are not as frequent in Junior B games as they are in the NHL – where the entertainment factor is of a different level – Haddaway said he thinks the OHA’s approach is a reasonable attempt to balance tradition with safety. The three-game window will help curb the number of premeditated fights, but allow for more spontaneous tilts when frustration runs high in the contact sport.
“I share a sort of traditionalist’s point of view: I certainly don’t mind the fighting that comes out of a natural reaction between two players. The premeditated stuff you see [with] several players who will fight late in game, I’m not sure that’s the kind of fighting I like to see. So, if it eliminates that part of it, then I think it’s a good thing,” said Haddaway, noting he wouldn’t want to see fights totally removed from the game.
“Right or wrong, it’s sort of a tradition and part of our game and I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to encourage that barbaric part of our game, but it’s been at all levels for a long time, and I think the OHA is certainly doing the right thing by taking a look at it in light of the recent events with Don Sanderson – there’s no question about that. I’m all for players’ safety but at the same time, I do like to respect the traditions of the game.”
Ladds holds a similar view.
“Fighting is something that has some historical and traditional presence within the game; I think what we have to do is do what we can do to discourage it and, secondly, monitor it so that we’re confident that it only results from frustration and doesn’t become a tactic within the game,” said Ladds, noting that the OHA will also monitor other categories of penalties in order to assess whether a tougher policy on fighting leads to an increase in other penalties such as those involving stick infractions.
For other Canadians just as passionate for the game, however, fights have no place on the ice.
“As a parent you really don’t want to see your child involved in a fight out there and the more that can be done to remove it from the game the better it is, from a parent’s standpoint anyway, and from the safety of the players,” said Joe Lepold, father of former Sugar Kings player Scott Lepold.
“My personal feeling is that fighting – you’re there to play hockey, you’re not there to fight – if they could eliminate fighting from the game I would certainly be in favour of that. It’s certainly one of those aspects of the game that people have come to associate with hockey but I’m not sure it needs to be part of the game,” he said, representing the other side of the national debate.
“The game has gotten so quick and so fast and so skilled that sometimes the fighting just detracts from an outstanding game.”