USA Hockey Looking North to Help Reduce Fighting in Junior Leagues

USA Hockey wants to dramatically reduce fighting in Tier I-III junior hockey by handing offenders a game misconduct and an automatic suspension for the following game – and it’s hoping that Hockey Canada adopts similar measures.

The proposed changes are based on rules used by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and are a conscious attempt to increase player safety.

“We have a responsibility to safeguard the game at the minor levels. This is not the NHL, and that’s not a criticism of the NHL. These are kids under 20 playing hockey”, said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey operations.

And USA Hockey is looking to Hockey Canada for help.

USA Hockey is targeting fighting in junior hockey with tougher rules, including, at a minimum, automatic game misconducts and one-game suspensions for players who fight. (Jim Neveau)

Following meetings that took place during the 2012 World Junior Championship, President of Hockey Canada Bob Nicholson said “I think USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are on the same page. We would like to reduce fighting.”

But there are those in Canada who have concerns over anti-fighting policies; some worry that there are no simple fixes. As Nicholson himself argued, “You don’t want the toughest guy in the league to go after the most skilled player and kicking both of them out.”

Kirk Lamb is chairman of the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) which oversees ten junior A (a step below major junior) hockey leagues in Canada. Lamb feels that “if, after considering all the information available it’s decided fighting needs to be removed, we just want to be sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t trade one type of violence for another, such as head shots or dangerous hits.”

Nicholson agreed, saying that by instituting any new anti-fighting measures “we don’t want to increase other types of violence. That’s the sort of tricky point. We want to reduce violence in the game first and foremost. We don’t just want to look at one aspect. You want to look at all of it as you take on the fighting issue.”

Bloody battles, like Ryan Clowe's (an alumnus of the CHL), will come under scrutiny in junior hockey when the CJHL

Fortunately, new information about fighting in junior hockey is about to become available for analysis. A two-year study that included five of Lamb’s junior A leagues will be released in May.

Over the course of 5000 CJHL games, this study collected data about several aspects of on-ice violence, including hits to the head and fighting. Part of the study attempted to measure the effects of various consequences for fighting.

The CJHL, as part of Hockey Canada, will share this data with USA Hockey when it becomes available.

Hockey Canada intends to discuss the findings at upcoming meetings in May, but it may be difficult for sweeping rule changes to be adopted in Canada at the major junior level. The three major junior leagues that collectively form the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), are each members of Hockey Canada, but do not need to follow direction given by the national body. The NCAA precedent may hold less sway with Canadian decision-makers than with their American counterparts.

As for Johannson’s expectations for junior hockey decision makers in Canada, he hopes that “all of us agree about the need to look out for the good of the sport and the players in it.”

The tougher fighting penalties will be voted on during USA Hockey meetings in June, and if accepted, could be in place for the 2012-13 season.