This could be the beginning of the end for fighting in junior hockey.
Canadian Hockey League president David Branch has long advocated for rules to reduce the number of fights in his leagues, including a controversial one in the Ontario Hockey League two years ago – anyone dropping the gloves 10 times in a season would receive a two-game suspension.
What he has rarely done is state plainly that fighting must go.
"You know what? It's crazy to say it this way, but I've not been afraid to express that view and opinion [that there needs to be less fighting]," Branch said in a nod to how controversial the topic is in junior hockey circles. "I believe that. In addition to working in the game, I love the game. I think we have the best game in the world based on its speed and its skill and the physicality. But fighting, to me, detracts from our game. We don't need it. And attitudes are changing, which I feel is really a positive."
Branch's comments came after two days of CHL meetings last week that included fellow commissioners Gilles Courteau, of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and Ron Robison, of the Western Hockey League. According to Branch, the discussions were cordial and productive. There have been battle lines drawn in this debate over the years, however.
Branch and the OHL are considered the most reform-oriented when it comes to limiting fighting. The WHL, meanwhile, is the most resistant. Quebec is somewhere in between, but closer to the OHL side.
Branch added the long-standing fighting debate to the CHL meetings' agenda after The Globe and Mail published a column last week highlighting how fighting was much more prevalent in its three leagues than in the NHL.
On average, the OHL, QMJHL and WHL have had 0.49 fights a game this season, almost double the 0.28 fights a game in the NHL.
That is even after fighting has sharply declined this season in all three junior leagues. Over all, there have been 17 per cent fewer fights in the CHL, with the QMJHL down the most at more than 23 per cent.
The key questions facing Branch, Courteau and Robison is whether those declines are enough, or if more needs to be done in order to, among other things, prevent more head injuries. Courteau has said recently he believes fighting could essentially disappear from his league within the next five years on its own.
"It is a positive for the game and for the players," Courteau said. "That's a culture change that we've seen lately. We're going in the right direction."
"From our standpoint, fighting is down 50 per cent from where it was five years ago," Robison said of the WHL's numbers. "This year will be the lowest ever recorded. Those are very encouraging signs."
"We've been talking about it regularly," Branch said. "Each of the three leagues has put in certain initiatives to reduce fighting, and we've been comparing notes. All three have had success. Now it's an ongoing process about next steps to take."
Putting in more anti-fighting measures is far from simple. The three commissioners have to work with the general managers, governors and competition committees in their leagues to get to a consensus, and in the past, that has been difficult.
In some cases, the leagues have ended up with different rules. The QMJHL was the first, for example, to introduce no-touch icing, which was later added in the OHL and WHL. And the OHL currently has more extensive rules aimed at eliminating staged fights and designated fighters than the other two leagues.
Ideally, Branch wants all three to be on the same page on major rule changes, which is why discussions like those held last week are important. But Courteau said he could see a situation in which there's a "pilot project" with a fighting ban used in one league to gauge its impact.
"It could happen," Courteau said. "Our No. 1 goal is to always be as similar as we can on playing rules, but it could be a difference."
"That's one of the real challenges," Branch said. "It's not so much getting rid of fighting. It's how you put in measures which will hopefully reduce it more, or curtail it altogether. What is that? Is it fight and you're out? Is it a 10-minute misconduct? Or are there other ways to do that?"
Branch knows any change will be controversial. He has been the OHL commissioner for nearly 40 years, and has been through similar battles with the hits-to-the-head ban in 2006 and the suspension of players who have 10 fights in a season in 2013.
After the latter change, Branch fielded messages from irate fans for weeks, including those who said they would no longer attend games and others who felt he was ruining the game.
"You know what, it didn't ruin the game," Branch said. "It makes it a better game, a safer game. But hockey is such a traditional game. It's ingrained in every household. So you've got to accept views and attitudes and move forward and build consensus.
"We're moving in that direction. I know. I coach minor hockey and I hear from parents and I talk to the players. They don't embrace [fighting]. They don't see it as something that they necessarily want to see in the game. It's happening. It's going."