Thursday, 22 March 2012

Junior-A Supplement Pilot Project Coming to a Close

When the Junior-A Supplement was announced before the 2010-11 season, it was met with a certain... "resistance" from fans, coaches and players.  While fans weren't happy with the rules limiting the number of fights a player could participate in before being suspended and other rule adjustments, it could have been more severe.

The Supplement was part of an experiment where five Junior-A leagues (SJHL, AJHL, BCHL, MJHL and the Maritime Junior Hockey League) to investigate the effectiveness of limiting fights in the fashion that the Supplement entailed versus the 'vanilla version' of Rule 6.7.  That's the rule limiting players to one fight per game.  When they drop the mitts, players are assessed a game misconduct.  First period?  Gone.  Second Period? Gone.  Third period, yeah, you've got it now... Gone.  In the Supplement Leagues, a player needs to fight a second time before getting the boot.  This isn't anything unfamiliar.  The SJHL featured the one-fight rule close to ten years ago (so I'm told), before going to a two-fight system.  The difference when the SJHL had the one-and-done rule is there was no real accumulation.  Players could fight pretty much as often as they wanted.

The two year pilot project of the Junior-A Supplement is in its final stages with reports and data being handed over to Hockey Canada in the next few weeks.  From there, Hockey Canada will use this research to decide how everything will shake down.  At least in theory.  From recent comments, it seems as though Hockey Canada already knows what's going to happen.

Photo: Corey Hardcastle
Last month, the New York Times ran a story quoting Bob Nicholson as saying, "The official stance from Hockey Canada is that we want to get rid of fighting as quickly as we can."  Whoa!  What?  That's pretty final, but maybe it's just a little out of context.  It happens some times.  Cue up a CBC article the next day where they interviewed Hockey Canada Vice-President of Hockey Development, Paul Carson.  I highly recommend reading the article because Carson gives a lot of great information about the Supplement and where it's headed.

If you're not up for checking the article out, here's an important quote.  When asked about where the leagues will stand after a general meeting this summer, Carson responded, "That all leagues and components within Hockey Canada abide by Regulation 6.7, and look at the elimination of fighting in all levels of the sport that we manage."  That's pretty clear.  However, Carson did mention he can't really speculate what actual motions will come out the meetings.  He did mention a goal for Hockey Canada, "our goal is to see the incidents of fighting go way down because players fear that they'll be ejected from the game, and with subsequent fights, be served with even stiffer sanctions."

That's not too far from what's going on with the rules right now.  One fight, done for the game, hit a number of fights during the season, and you get suspended with the suspension increasing every fight.  That's one stage away from the SJHL, just sub two fights for one.  Hockey Canada will look at the raw data and use it to decide how to adjust Rule 6.7, but it seems like most of the generalities have been decided.

The language is pretty general.  Stiffer penalties/subsequent fights could also mean a shift towards a more NCAA outlook on things.  Combatants in an NCAA fight are shown the door for the remainder of the contest via game misconduct.  They are then suspended for the number of games mirroring their number of game misconducts on the season.  Fight once, one game misconduct, one game suspension.  Second fight, two game suspension and so forth.  That certainly goes further towards the 'eliminating fights' idea.  In Canada, the CIS isn't quite so strict, but features an interesting clause.  Players in a fight are both given a suspension with an instigating fighter getting a two game suspension.  Basically eliminating retaliation stemming from a hit dirty or clean.
Photo: Corey Hardcastle

So where does this all fit on a SJHL level?  League President Bill Chow isn't exactly sold on the eliminate fighting in hockey mantra.  "Hockey Canada keeps talking about eliminating fighting, well, the only thing about that is; you're never going to eliminate fighting from hockey," Chow commented, "you can put in rules to deter fighting in hockey, so I'm not really sure where that's going to go to."  Chow went on to mention the possibility of the one-fight rule, but didn't speculate on where things could go.

With the removal of fighting in hockey largely under the banner of player safety, Chow feels the focus needs to shift, "If you had a way of looking at everything, the number of players injured are probably more from dangerous hits, hits to the head, high elbows... those types of hits than the actual fighting."  Recent numbers certainly support that.  You may remember earlier in the season, a study was released claiming 1 in 10 head injuries in hockey came from fighting.  While in a sampling of 200 players, 20 still isn't a pretty number, that's 90% of head injuries stemming from hockey plays and dangerous hits.  Chow says the focus needs to be on the 90% rather than the 10%, "if we're talking about trying to make the game safer for the players I think what we should do is stop talking just about fighting and start talking about getting the manufacturers to adjust their equipment.  Then we can start to really take a look at making the game safer for the players."  The equipment issue is pretty hotly debated as to whether it could help with player safety, but certainly worth the look.

So once everyone's sitting at the general meetings, what happens if the leagues who proposed the Supplement to stay away from the one fight rule don't like where discussions with Hockey Canada are going?  Chow makes it pretty clear, "At the end of the day, we're governed by Hockey Canada, and unless they allow us to put in a different supplement or adjust the supplement in some way... then we would be bound by the rules that are in place by Hockey Canada." 

Wherever the debate on fighting takes us this summer, you can be sure fans, players, coaches and anyone else involved with the game will have a close eye on the situation.  For a player's perspective on removing fighting, check out my interview with Ice Wolves defenceman, Ben Bula, during this year's playoffs in the Audio on Demand section.

What do you think about fighting in Junior-A hockey?  Sound off in the comments section below.


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