Fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle

New rules and an em­pha­sis on brains over brawn have re­duced fight­ing in OHA’S ju­nior ranks

Simcoe Reformer - - SPORTS - Cory Smith co­[email protected]­media.com

In some ways, Adam Wal­lace rep­re­sents the evo­lu­tion of fight­ing in the On­tario Hockey As­so­ci­a­tion’s ju­nior ranks.

The bruis­ing blue-liner was a pain for op­pos­ing play­ers, rack­ing up close to 10 fights in three sea­sons with his home­town Wood­stock Navy Vets, Leam­ing­ton Fly­ers, and St. Thomas Stars.

Wal­lace left the OHA for two years, drop­ping his gloves 50 times and giv­ing the On­tario Hockey League’s Wind­sor Spit­fires an in­tim­i­dat­ing el­e­ment as they won back-to-back Me­mo­rial Cup ti­tles in 2010 and 2011.

Al­most a decade af­ter his ju­nior ca­reer ended, the 28-year-old is now be­hind the bench as head coach of a Cam­bridge Red­hawks team that has just four fights this sea­son.

“The game has cer­tainly changed since I played,” he said. “It’s good where it’s at right now. Guys will still stick up for each other, but fans get to see more goals and the en­ter­tain­ing stuff ... but I think there’s still a place for fight­ing in the game. It has to come at the right time and for the right rea­sons.”

Af­ter years of grad­ual de­cline, fight­ing in the OHA’S ju­nior leagues is tak­ing a beat­ing thanks to rules put in place to de­ter fisticuffs and a re­newed value on brains over brawn.

“I think the game has con­stantly evolved,” Strat­ford War­riors head coach Dave Wil­liams said. “I per­son­ally don’t think the game has ever been bet­ter than it is to­day. I think ev­ery­one ap­pre­ci­ates the skill and speed of the game, and I think as there’s been greater fo­cus and em­pha­sis on play­ers de­vel­op­ing their skillset to be of­fen­sively im­pact­ful play­ers, it lends it­self that (fight­ing) doesn’t hap­pen as of­ten.”

In 2017-18, fight­ing in the GOJHL dropped 58.3 per cent from the pre­vi­ous sea­son to 0.10 fights per game, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by the OHA. It was the first sea­son af­ter the gov­ern­ing body man­dated full fa­cial pro­tec­tion for all of its play­ers across three ju­nior leagues.

Not only did elim­i­nat­ing half vi­sors make it more dif­fi­cult to fight, but re­mov­ing an op­po­nent’s hel­met now re­sults in an au­to­matic gross mis­con­duct and one-game sus­pen­sion that could in­crease to two games if a player re­moves his own hel­met. Tack on an­other game if the fight hap­pens in the last 10 min­utes of the third pe­riod, a de­ci­sion that was made sev­eral years ago to pre­vent brawls when the score was lop­sided.

Those rules didn’t ex­ist in the 1980s and 90s when OHA play­ers wore face­masks and fights were fre­quent, es­pe­cially late in the game.

“There’s def­i­nitely go­ing to be times on the ice you’ll be play­ing with that kind of speed and that kind of com­pete that you’re go­ing to have sit­u­a­tions where guys are go­ing to bump into each other and not like what has taken place,” Wil­liams said. “Emo­tions are go­ing to get the best of guys.”

Wil­liams played for the Strat­ford Cul­li­tons in 1995-96 when four play­ers each ac­cu­mu­lated more than 100 penalty min­utes. By com­par­i­son, only four play­ers have hit that mark in three-plus sea­sons as head coach of the War­riors.

Wil­liams said it starts at the top, as fight­ing in the NHL has dropped to its low­est point since 1961-62.

“I think those are the games that set the stan­dard for our guys. As that has been taken out of the game at the higher lev­els, I think that’s just work­ing its way right through.”

In the OJHL, fight­ing fell 50 per cent to 0.06 per game in 2017-18. While the OHA’S rules have helped, the Ju­nior A league cre­ated ad­di­tional sanc­tions for play­ers and coaches to com­bat re­peat of­fend­ers with a pen­chant for pugilism.

“It’s taken a big dip,” OJHL com­mis­sioner Marty Savoy said. “I think it will con­tinue to go down. We’re so in­flu­enced by the NHL for so many rea­sons. They’re amaz­ing ath­letes, and when our kids look at them and see they don’t fight, they won’t want to fight.”

Savoy was 17 when he cracked the Oakville Blades’ ros­ter in 1988. It was of­ten men against boys – lit­er­ally – when play­ers with a fouryear age gap dropped the gloves.

“You wouldn’t al­low that to hap­pen any­where else in so­ci­ety,” he said.

“Back then you had to fight. It was some­thing that you did. You don’t have to do that any­more. We want kids who can play the game, skate and score. That’s what our coaches and gen­eral man­agers are look­ing for.”

Con­trac­tion in the early 2010s also helped the OJHL elim­i­nate en­forcers and el­e­vate its pool of tal­ent in an ef­fort to be­come more at­trac­tive to prospec­tive play­ers hop­ing to earn a schol­ar­ship.

“The guys who are com­ing in and go­ing through our league don’t want to be per­ceived as a fighter,” Savoy said. “They want to be a skilled player who can con­trib­ute to a win­ning hockey team. The kid re­al­izes the night he sits out (due to a sus­pen­sion for fight­ing) might be the night Cor­nell is there to look at him ... you can’t af­ford to sit in the stands.”

Michi­gan Tech NCAA Divi­sion 1 men’s hockey as­sis­tant coach Chris Brooks said re­cruit­ing play­ers who fight isn’t a pri­or­ity, but the for­mer Cul­li­tons star ap­pre­ci­ates com­pet­i­tive and re­lent­less traits of­ten found in play­ers will­ing to scrap.

“I al­ways looked at fight­ing within hockey as a form of en­ter­tain­ment, a way to change mo­men­tum in a game, or a way to cre­ate an iden­tity for a player or of­ten a team,” he said. “The game has cer­tainly evolved over the years, with speed and skill be­com­ing such a pri­or­ity. The tal­ent level of play­ers to­day is ex­cep­tional, but the best play­ers still need to have that com­pet­i­tive spirit and hard-nosed will to sep­a­rate them from other play­ers.”

Fight­ing has flat­lined in the 63-team Provin­cial Ju­nior Hockey League, which has ex­isted since 2016 when Ju­nior C and D teams merged. There were 0.20 fights per game in 2017-18, down a tick from 0.21 in each of the pre­vi­ous two sea­sons.

“When I was a player it was very com­mon to see mul­ti­ple fights in a game,” Tav­i­s­tock Braves head coach Dan Kalbfleisch said. “It’s only 10 years ago but through­out my ju­nior ca­reer there’d be line brawls or things of that na­ture. What I’ve seen as a coach in our divi­sion it’s al­most non-ex­is­tent. (Dec. 13) we had our sec­ond fight of the year.”

The OHA’S largest league is due to see a re­gres­sion in fights much like those at higher lev­els, Kalbfleisch be­lieves.

“Even­tu­ally it will find its way to Ju­nior C. Skill level is go­ing up from here more than it was five, 10 years ago.”

De­trac­tors of fight­ing in hockey are grow­ing as more is known about the long-term ef­fects of trad­ing fists to the face. Strat­ford’s Jamie Petrie fought nu­mer­ous times while play­ing for a trio of Ju­nior B teams in the 1980s and is be­lieved to have chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE), a brain con­di­tion as­so­ci­ated with re­peated blows to the head.

For­mer team­mate Mike Peluso racked up 114 PIMS with the Cul­li­tons in 1984-85, which set the stage for an eight-year NHL ca­reer that in­cluded more than 170 fights and left him with brain dam­age.

Peluso has tried to fight back in court, and he re­cently made it known he wouldn’t ac­cept a $22,000 set­tle­ment as part of a con­cus­sion law­suit brought against the NHL by more than 100 re­tired play­ers.

Richard Karcher, a law pro­fes­sor at Eastern Michi­gan Univer­sity who is an ex­pert on civil harms and sports, said re­course against the OHA, its leagues or teams over cog­ni­tive is­sues play­ers suf­fer, or will suf­fer in the fu­ture, would need to be filed as a class ac­tion law­suit, which would re­quire a fed­eral court cer­ti­fy­ing a group of play­ers as a class – some­thing play­ers in the NHL con­cus­sion law­suit were un­able to achieve.

“The first ques­tion would be whether the leagues owe a le­gal duty to the play­ers be­cause a court could con­clude that fight­ing on the ice, and the in­jury that re­sults from it, is an in­her­ent risk of hockey that play­ers as­sume,” Karcher wrote in an email. “There would also be ques­tions sur­round­ing cau­sa­tion, in par­tic­u­lar whether the play­ers’ cog­ni­tive is­sues are due to the fail­ure of the leagues to adopt rules to pre­vent or de­ter fight­ing on the ice.”

More re­cently, Bramp­ton Bombers de­fence­man Tyler Wood left the Lis­towel Arena in an am­bu­lance in 2016 af­ter his head slammed to the ice in a fight.

In 2009, Se­bringville-area lines­man Kevin Brown nearly died on the ice in Wood­stock af­ter his carotid artery was sev­ered while break­ing up a fight. Brown is still deal­ing with mul­ti­ple health is­sues re­sult­ing from the in­ci­dent.

Pro­po­nents of fight­ing have long said that fewer fights would lead to more stick­work and silli­ness, though so far it hasn’t been an is­sue. As fight­ing floun­dered in 2017-18, there was min­i­mal dif­fer­ence in slash­ing, high-stick­ing, cross-check­ing and spear­ing penal­ties from the pre­vi­ous sea­son across the OHA’S ju­nior leagues.

“When I started there weren’t re­ally any rook­ies get­ting into a vet’s face,” said War­riors for­ward Sean Ross, whose first ju­nior sea­son was 2014-15 in Lambton Shores. “There were a lot more fights, you could do stuff about it. Now that they’re try­ing to make the game more safe and adding the face shield and ex­tra penal­ties, it just causes a lot more chirp­ing af­ter the whis­tles. That’s pretty much all I see. It’s a bit more of a chippy game now be­cause guys know they won’t get in a tilt.”

Cory Smith/ Post­media news

Strat­ford’s Kam Shearer and Kitch­ener’s Matt Marinier fight dur­ing a game in the 2017-18 sea­son.

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