Opinion

Hodge: All eyes on the NHL to make the step to ban fisticuffs

Editor’s note: Columnist Charlie Hodge does not normally write back-to-back columns about hockey, however, the recent debate around fighting was more than he could resist. Hodge is the author of two hockey books and is currently completing a third.

Anything truly is possible, it seems, if we see fighting in hockey go the way of the dinosaur—although its extinction might take a while yet.

Earlier this week, the guru of major junior hockey in Canada, Canadian Hockey League commissioner David Branch, told The New York Times, “the appetite is there” to eliminate fighting from junior hockey in Canada. “The time is certainly right to move forward,” Branch said in regards to the concept.

His comments have once again sent debate ripples throughout the hockey and sports world.

However, this time  some pundits believe the current hubbub may actually result in significant steps forward on the plan.

The ‘ban fighting in hockey’ bandwagon is gaining multiple proponents every day. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are also considering ending fighting in all the non-professional leagues on the continent.

Bob Nicholson, CEO of Hockey Canada, has long been an advocate of eliminating fighting.

And Branch’s comments come with a lot of clout.

Currently, the Canadian Hockey League encompasses the three major Junior Hockey Leagues in Canada—the Western Hockey League, Quebec Major, and Ontario Hockey League—and provides more than 55 per cent of the players in the NHL.

If fighting is eliminated from major junior hockey in Canada, as is now the case in Europe and at the NCAA college hockey level, there will certainly be an impact on the game at the NHL level.

Ironically, that is a whole other debate in the fight about fighting. Like dancing, the question seems to be who should go first in enforcing a ban—the NHL or junior hockey?

Don Hay, coach of the WHL Vancouver Giants,  does not want fighting banned in major junior hockey, or at least not until the NHL goes first.

“If the National Hockey League is going to take it out of their game, then we should take it out of ours because there is no point to it,” Hay told Vancouver media.

“The NHL will set the standards for the other leagues, whether it’s the American League or our league. The people who want to get to the NHL eventually have to play under the same rules the NHL is playing under.”

Naturally, the argument that eliminating or reducing fighting will lead to more spearing, slashing, high sticking and other infractions by players is still lamented by pro-fight fans, and with some truth.

I believe a critical component to eliminating fighting (at all levels but especially the NHL) is to implement much stricter rules applied to stick infractions.

Some players do take liberties with their stick if they believe they will not be held accountable.

Phase in the fighting bans starting with a five-minute major penalty, banishment from the game and automatic one game suspension.

Hockey Canada is already looking at changes in fighting in the junior A leagues and other levels around the country.

Junior A leagues in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Maritimes implemented Hockey Canada’s anti-fighting rules and took them one step further, enacting stiffer penalties including suspensions for players who fight more than once, as part of a two-year pilot project.

Hockey Canada will study the data and findings on the impact of the rules in reducing or eliminating fighting by spring.

•••

Certainly, a little fisticuffs was part of the Vancouver Canucks thinking earlier this week when they dealt away one of my favourite young NHL players in Cody Hodgson to Buffalo for Zack Kassian.

Hodgson was the talented third line centre with Vancouver and showing tremendous promise in his first full rookie season in the bigs.

Hodgson, drafted 10th overall in 2008, will undoubtedly become an elite NHL star.

He had 33 points in 67 games.

Young Kassian is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-winger drafted 13th overall in 2009.

He brings some skill and a nasty, physical style to the team, certainly something the club does not currently have.

In 27 NHL games, Kassian has 10 points and 20 penalty minutes. In 30 games this year with Rochester of the American Hockey League, Kassian recorded 15 goals and 26 total points and 31 penalty minutes.

I am sure Kassian will prove to be a great addition. I am just not sure if losing Hodgson was too high a price.

Time will tell.

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