NEWARK NJ - DECEMBER 26: Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs fights with Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils in the second period of an NHL hockey game at the Prudential Center on December 26 2010 in Newark New Jersey. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Fighting isn't going anywhere in the NHL, at least not any time soon. But at lower levels, including the top Junior leagues in the world, the end could be near.
There's been much talk about fighting in hockey lately. That isn't a whole lot different than usual, because fighting always seems to become a hot topic for a while here and there.
In recent months, though, the topic of fighting -- and the subsequent debate over its place in this wonderful sport -- has taken on a much different tone.
The deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak -- along with the passing of legendary 1990s fighter Bob Probert -- have brought on the argument that fighting can actually cause serious damage. Boogaard and Probert were found to have CTE, a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by excessive and repeated head trauma.
Researchers are in the early stages of CTE work, and at this point, the disease is not detectable until after death. That means there is a lot of work to be done on this, and it also means there is an awful lot of speculating about its root causes and how it can be prevented as we move forward.
Many are calling for the end of fighting in the NHL. While that doesn't seem imminent at this point, the man behind Canada's three major junior hockey leagues says he can see the sport moving in a different direction.
David Branch is the commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, as well as president of the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the OHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and Western Hockey League. In response to the story of a 17-year-old with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires who has a "goal" of getting into 30 fights, Branch says the end may be near.
Slowly, the CHL is getting there. Last season, there were no fights in 42 percent of the games. Branch wants to bring that number down even further. The only way to do that is to ban fighting and eject players who drop their gloves during any part of the game.
"I think, practically, that’s really the only rule you could have," Branch said. "And then you may choose going forward to increase the sanctions if you become a habitual fighter. There’s such a changing attitude. If you had brought that up 20 years ago, [team owners and general managers] would have shook their heads. Now, there’s more and more people saying, ‘How can we get there?’ And it’s coming."
I'm still not sure I'm ready to eject any players involved in a fight, because I'm just not sure what the potential repercussions would be.
However, if the sport starts moving in that direction, I'm not going to scream protests from the rooftops. Simply put, if the sport makes a universal decision -- one that reaches down to major junior first, then through the minor leagues and through the NHL -- that seems to be one in favor of the safety of everyone, it's hard to argue.
For every moment where you think fighting is necessary, there's a gratuitous, unnecessary fight that serves no purpose other than to let the home team enforcer get some cheers from the fans in attendance.
Fighting doesn't sell many tickets. As Branch points out in the Post article, you don't see fighting in the Memorial Cup, or in the World Juniors, and those are both great events. You don't see many fights in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and I don't think I have to tell you how awesome the playoffs are in the NHL.
Branch believes the segment of fans more put off by fighting than anything else is growing. He may have an argument. Maybe a tougher stance on fighting would actually sell more tickets.
One thing is certain, and that's things are more than likely going to change in at least some way.
The NHL can bury its head in the sand, but the issue will be addressed at some point. Whether it's finding a way to eliminate the unnecessary, seemingly premeditated fights, or eliminating fighting altogether, the NHL will eventually do something.
The culture of hockey might not change overnight, but the support is there for it to eventually happen.