Hockey without rough stuff: How junior leagues have decreased fighting – USA TODAY
Fighting in the NHL continues to decrease, but U.S junior hockey is where radical changes are being seen.
“Fighting is not part of the fabric in junior hockey in the United States anymore,” said Marc Boxer, USA Hockey’s director of junior hockey. “It’s not what kids are doing … no kid wants to take himself out of a game because the viewing he may get from NHL scouts and college scouts.”
The USA Hockey Player Safety Initiative was adopted in 2012 with a mandate to reduce unnecessary violence with tougher standards, harsher punishment and increased league scrutiny. Since then fighting and reckless hits have been down and the quality of play has been on the rise.
In 2011-12, the United States Hockey League had 265 fights in 480 games. This season, there have been 70 fights in 413 games for a decrease of 73.5%.
“Justice was being taken out of opponents’ hands and put into the league’s hands,” Fargo (N.D.) Force coach Cary Eades said.
Meanwhile fighting at the NHL level is at its lowest rate — at .28 fights per game — since 2000, when HockeyFights.com started compiling the data.
“I think the results have exceeded our expectations,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director for hockey operations.
The most recent rule change that has made biggest difference came in 2014 when the penalty for fighting in the USHL and North American Hockey League went from a five-minute major to a five-minute major plus a 10-minute misconduct.
“Not only has the level of play improved (in the USHL and NAHL), but also there are a greater number of potential prospects of interest for the both the collegiate and professional ranks,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of central scouting.
It’s not just fighting that has been curtailed. There are fewer instances of reckless behavior. For example, in 2011-12, there were 190 kneeing and elbowing penalties in the USHL. This season, there have been 95.
In 2012-13, 21 players in the USHL had at least four fights, and not a single player has that many this season.
“It is not what I would call a softer game,” said former NHL goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, the general manager of the USHL’s Muskegon (Mich.) Lumberjacks. “I would say it is a more respectful game.”
The NAHL hired former NHL referee Mark Faucette as the league’s director of player safety. He reviews on-ice behavior the same way the NHL’s department of player safety reviews it. And in the USHL, Commissioner Bob Fallen said the amount of video the league reviews has “more than doubled” in the past three years.
“I’m a guy who played junior hockey in the 1970s and it was crazy back then,” Eades said. “I’m not an advocate of taking fighting out of the game altogether. But my players are my boys and I want the game to be safe for them. We know what it is going on with football and concussions. We want to make the game fast and exciting. But we also need it safe.”
There are also more American junior players being drafted by NHL teams. In 2015, 37 players were selected from the USHL, equaling the number of players picked from the Western Hockey League, and surpassing the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Frankenfeld said he believes the level of play has improved because players’ focus is on the game, instead of worrying about the other confrontations.
“I think our players are in tune with the fact that they can play harder, play faster and play more intense up to the whistle knowing there is a barrier to unwanted and unnecessary behavior,” Frankenfeld said.
One of the USHL’s missions is to help players earn scholarships to college, where fighting is banned. “Why would we promote or proliferate fighting in our league?” Fallen asked.
“There may be some NHL teams that still want a guy who can fight,” said Adam Micheletti, the USHL’s director of hockey operations. “But for the most part, there is a change happening from our level all the way to the NHL.”
But fighting remains a tradition in some USHL cities, and some fans have protested the reduction in fights, although attendance has not dropped.
“We still want to have a physical brand of hockey,” Micheletti said. “It’s important that we make sure that are games have that aspect to them. But for the most, the changes have been very positive. It has definitely opened up new streams of revenue. Maybe five years ago, you couldn’t get the school group to come in because they thought the game was too violent. Now with the decrease in fighting, it has allowed us to market the game to new groups.”
Both leagues report a decrease in the number of injuries as well. “We have listened to what doctors have said and what people were saying about creating a safer game, and at the junior level, and I think we have done so,” Vanbiesbrouck said.
Johannson said he knew it was time to curtail fighting because the substance of the debate changed. “It wasn’t a hockey conversation anymore,” Johannson said. “It was a health conversation.”