I have neither the time nor the inclination, at this particular moment anyway, to get into the complex and controversial argument on fighting and violence and safety issues in hockey, so let me just say this quickly: Dave Branch gets it.
The commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League has, once again, acted swiftly and decisively in the wake of the tragic death of senior player Don Sanderson, who lost his life this month after his bare head struck the ice during a fight where his helmet had come off in a game in mid-December
Effective Thursday, these new OHL rules will be in place:
"If a player should remove his helmet or undo his chinstrap prior to or during an altercation, such player shall receive a game misconduct in addition to any other penalties assessed and an automatic one (1) game suspension. If a player should remove his helmet or undo his chinstrap prior to entering into an altercation, and his opponent does not remove his helmet, the player removing his helmet shall receive a two minute minor penalty, a game misconduct penalty in addition to any other penalties assessed and an automatic one (1) game suspension.
If a player should remove an opponent's helmet or undo an opponent's chinstrap prior to or during an altercation, such player shall receive an automatic game misconduct penalty in addition to any other penalties assessed and a one (1) game suspension.
If during the course of an altercation a player or player's helmets should become dislodged, the linesmen are to intervene immediately."
Branch's critics might suggest he is a reactionary, that he over-reacts to freak accidents and incidents. Those who really embrace the old-time hockey culture might go so far as to call him a subversive.
This is, after all, the same fellow who had a mandatory neckguard rule in the OHL shortly after Richard Zednik's near-death experience when a skate blade slashed his throat last season.
And the same guy who went against the grain and had the OHL institute a two-minute head-checking penalty for any contact to the head, even if it was incidental on a hit delivered with the shoulder, to say nothing of the heavy-duty suspensions he's handed out over the years for aberrant or violent behavior in his league.
And now, egads, he's going to make it more difficult to fight in the OHL, but if the fight should now occur, the participants are going to be safer, except perhaps for the broken hands they may suffer, banging them off visors and helmets that will be on the players' heads, which if you think about it is kind of the point of the protection in the first place.
But traditionalists feel fighting's role in hockey supercedes the need for any protective equipment so there will be lots of gnashing of teeth over this new OHL rule, which could be termed the strongest ever anti-fighting measure taken by one of the mainstream leagues in the game today.
But Branch is undaunted. The man is fearless. He is unconcerned about what others say about him. And he doesn't buy into the fear-mongering that goes on when the traditionalists warn of the dire consequences of any action that can be construed as anti-violence. The old-school guys can criticize him all they like, but Dave Branch is a man's man. Just ask the disgruntled fan(s) from Niagara Falls who once accosted him in a parking lot in Peterborough late one night long ago. Branch likes hard, physical hockey as much as the next guy but understands there's a limit to how far you embrace that. There's nothing soft or effete about Dave Branch, but he simply isn't afraid to take the hockey path less traveled.
It's often been said by many that if you have a penalty for head checking, there will be no hitting. Branch says it's otherwise and has the play in the OHL as his evidence.
Now that he has taken measures that will surely minimize or make it more difficult to fight in the OHL, you will hear the concerns raised that there'll be no “accountability” in the game and far more insidious problems will be created.
Well, that is a chance he's prepared to take because what he knows, and this is where he gets it like no other, is that in the wake of the Sanderson tragedy, if the same thing were to happen in the OHL under his watch, someone would inevitably ask him why he didn't do something that could have prevented it.
And he wouldn't have had a good answer.
So the commissioner of the OHL isn't fazed by the “sky is falling” rhetoric that comes with opposition to every one of his preventive safety or anti-injury measures and he does what he believes to be right for the health and welfare of the kids who play in his league, which should be a comfort to their parents if nothing else.
And in the meantime, as near as I can tell, the OHL continues to survive and thrive as a business and premier development league for professional hockey.