USA Hockey is looking to ban fighting from its junior ranks and is hoping Canadian hockey does the same.
At its recent winter meetings, USA Hockey recommended that fighting be eliminated at the Tier I, II and III levels. The proposal, which will go to a formal vote in June and could be implemented for the 2012-13 season, calls for National Collegiate Athletic Association-style sanctions to penalize fights. (In the NCAA, a player who fights receives a game misconduct and must sit out the next game, too. There are increased suspensions for every additional fight a player has.)
USA Hockey also asked that Canada work to ban fighting, too. The rationale is that player safety is paramount and that blows to the head from fighting could cause brain injuries in young players and result in lawsuits.
Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, said "everything that's been going on in the game – player safety, the number of injuries and where fighting fits into that" was the impetus for taking a tougher stand on fighting.
"Whatever we do there'll be a fight in junior hockey next season," Johannson said. "But if kids are in this level of hockey and fighting x amount of times, then what's going on? We have a responsibility to safeguard the game at the minor levels. This is not the NHL, and that's not a criticism of the NHL. These are kids under 20 playing hockey."
Canadian hockey officials are willing to discuss the fighting issue and do what's best for the players. Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson participated in a meeting with USA Hockey during the 2012 world junior tournament in Edmonton and said Thursday: "We want to remove fighting from the game, but we don't want to create other violent acts that may occur. We'll work hand in hand with USA Hockey."
Kirk Lamb, chairman of the Canadian Junior Hockey League, also took part in the world junior meeting with USA Hockey, and insisted it was important to make smart decisions, not ones with "unintended consequences."
"Player safety involves more than just fighting," Lamb said. "It's about attitudes of players and coaches and making sure we adopt rules that encourage change in those attitudes. If, after considering all the information available it's decided fighting needs to be removed, we just want to be sure that we do it in a way that doesn't trade one type of violence for another, such as head shots or dangerous hits."
The CJHL will soon formulate data collected from its leagues that allow a player to fight twice in the same game and compare it to leagues where only one fight is permitted. It's that sort of hard-core analysis Canadian hockey officials are willing to share with their American counterparts.
"We've done some pretty good things in junior A in the last 18 months," Lamb said of the CJHL's disciplinary efforts to reduce fighting and violence. "We put the offer out to [USA Hockey] 'Let's work together.'"
Getting the Canadian Hockey League to follow USA Hockey's no-fighting plan might not be easy. The Ontario, Quebec and Western major junior leagues are associate members of Hockey Canada and govern themselves. They're prime feeders for the NHL and, as such, allow on-ice fights as part of a player's professional development. Ron Robison, commissioner of the Western Hockey League, was at the world-junior meeting with USA Hockey, and Thursday he reiterated how the CHL is "partnered with the NHL and we have an understanding to mirror their rules."
"From a WHL/CHL perspective, we feel strongly our role is to prepare players for the next level and as long as fighting is an element of that, we need to prepare the players so they can protect themselves," Robison said, adding that fighting in the WHL is down 10 per cent compared to a year ago.
"We monitor [fighting]very closely," he added. "I think the game is evolving to a point where there are less one-dimensional players, if any. The focus today is on speed and skill."
USA Hockey concurred with that, but is still hoping for a significant show of support from its northern neighbours.
"They're important stakeholders," Johannson said of Hockey Canada, the CHL and the CJHL. "The hope for them is that all of us agree about the need to look out for the good of the sport and the players in it."