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Bob McKenzie

TSN Hockey Insider


The executive of the Canadian Hockey League will meet today, a regularly scheduled get-together, and one of many things they will be talking about is fighting in junior hockey.

CHL president Dave Branch, who is also commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, put fighting on the agenda for today's meeting with Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau after the publishing of a column in the Globe and Mail this past weekend.

The story was written by James Mirtle - you can read it here - and it noted that while fighting in junior hockey is continually decreasing, there's still more fighting amongst teenage hockey players in the CHL than there is in the NHL. The headline on the column left no doubt as to Mirtle's view: It's long past time fighting was knocked out of junior hockey.

It's not unreasonable to suggest Branch doesn't disagree with that, to some degree anyway, based on his quote in the column: “I’m not defending fighting. I don’t know if there’s any place for fighting in our game.”

But Branch also knows it's a far more complicated issue than that. Each of the three major junior leagues have a unique view on this subject; each of the leaders — Robison in the West, Branch in Ontario and Courteau in Quebec — have unique challenges within their constituencies.

Also, the truth is it's a lot easier to say “ban fighting” than it is to actually eradicate it. That’s why Branch simply wants to engage in a discussion today and see where, if anywhere, it goes.

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"I want to hear what Ron and Gilles have to say," Branch said. "It's a good discussion to have, to see where we agree or disagree, what challenges are involved. It's always better if [the three leagues that comprise the CHL] have the same rules but it's not necessarily essential either. That's why I put it on the agenda."

Branch said fighting is down 16 per cent season this season in the OHL. It has decreased in each of the last six seasons.

Anecdotally speaking, based only on the limited number of OHL games I've watched this season, there has been little or no fighting in most of those games. But obviously, based on the numbers presented in Mirtle's Globe column, relative to the NHL anyway, the junior hockey numbers are still noteworthy.

My feelings on this issue haven't changed a lot since I wrote my first book — Hockey Dad: True Confessions of a (Crazy?) Hockey Parent — more than seven years ago and addressed the fighting issue in junior and minor (youth) hockey with the following passage:

“I am not one of those hockey people who trumpet fighting as some great mythical part of the game, but I've spent my whole life in and around hockey, so I get it. I understand fighting and the culture of the game as well as anyone; I know what's it's like to be in a hockey fight (mostly on the receiving end); I know what it's like to see my boys in fights; I don't turn my eyes away from a fight, but I don't go to the game hoping and expecting to see one either.

Fighting in the NHL is one this one thing, and this is not the forum to engage in this debate, because I believe, at the NHL level, it is a very complex issue, far more involved a discussion than the most vehement pro- or anti-fighting forces would have you believe. Besides, fighting in the NHL involves men who are making their living at the game.

So if there's going to be an anti-fighting crusade, I say identify the most appropriate target. And for me, that means all levels of hockey below professional — minor (kids), Junior A, major junior, college and university — should have much tougher anti-fighting rules...

My son Shawn's (youth) league had a rule that if you fight, you are out of the game. That rule was no deterrent to anybody in Shawn's game. My other son Mike played four years of Junior A hockey with the same (fight and you're out of the game) rule and there were still lots of fights more nights than not. Don Sanderson's tragic death in an Ontario Senior A game — he hit his bare head on the ice when he fell during a fight — was in a league that punishes fighting with automatic ejection. And yet that didn't prevent that fight either. That automatic ejection rule doesn't "ban" fighting.

The penalties for fighting need to be far stiffer if you're going to modify the behaviour and mindset of young hockey players. For me, any league where there are teenagers involved and the majority will never make their living at the game should adopt much more stringent anti-fighting measures.”

That's how I felt about this issue more than seven years ago. Admittedly, there was a lot more fighting back then, but I'd suggest the accrued benefits of less fighting now amongst teenagers is effectively cancelled by knowing so much more now than then about the long-term perils of head trauma.

I don't believe it's ever as easy as simply saying "ban fighting" but whatever measures junior hockey can take to continue down the reduction road are steps in the right direction.

Do it, as the saying goes, for the kids.

The future in Flint

I don't envy the position the OHL finds itself in with Flint Firebirds owner Rolf Nilsen.

If you're not up to speed on it, you can read TSN hockey reporter Frank Seravalli's recent accounts of it here, here and here.

Long story short, what the OHL has here is a renegade owner of sorts who clearly is not acting in the best interests of the league.

The best thing for all involved, perhaps with the exception of Nilsen himself, would be for Nilsen to no longer be the owner of the team.

But that's easier said than done, as long as Nilsen intends to remain as the team's owner. This, for now, seems to be the case.

Some might suggest simply stripping the franchise from Nilsen. That, of course, sounds good in theory, but practically, and most definitely legally, that's quite a can of worms. Especially now that Nilsen has retained noted Windsor, Ont., defence attorney Patrick Ducharme, who first came to prominence in hockey circles when he represented the late Bob Probert for a cross-border drug violation charge in the 1980s and ultimately became a player agent for a time.

Another alternative would be for the OHL to suspend Nilsen for a fixed and long term (he's currently under indefinite suspension) and have the league assume day-to-day control and operation of the franchise — which, to a large extent, is already happening, at least to finish up this OHL regular season — and hope Nilsen decides on his own to eventually sell the franchise and/or move on.

There are undoubtedly some tangled legal issues to do even that.

I suppose there's always a possibility of some sort of negotiated settlement between Nilsen and the OHL that would clarify things in some fashion.

But here's the real rub: the OHL priority selections, otherwise known as the minor midget draft, is set for April 9. The Firebirds have the third and fifth picks overall in the first round.

Given all that has gone on in Flint, and the uncertainty of how it will unfold in the days, weeks and months ahead, what prospect and/or his family are going to want to put themselves or their son into this mess?

I've talked to multiple player agents who represent top OHL prospects and suffice it to say going to Flint is, at this point anyway, a total non-starter — to say nothing of the current Firebird players and their families, or NHL teams who have drafted players currently playing in Flint.

It's too bad, too. As Seravalli wrote in his story today, the Firebirds' franchise was not without some redeeming qualities. By all accounts, there's a strong school program for the players. A good billet family system, too, as well as good hockey facilities and community support for the team.

In a perfect world, at some point between now and April 9, the OHL would definitively chart some course of action that might allay the fears of prospects, players, parents, agents and NHL teams.

But on such complicated legal and financial matters, there's no guarantee it can happen by April 9 or any time soon after. In which case, in spite of the OHL's best efforts to resolve these issues, for now anyway, the Firebirds are an OHL franchise that is largely unappealing to most everyone involved in the game.