Amateur hockey officials consider eliminating fighting in U.S., Canada

  • Article by: JOHN BRANCH , New York Times
  • Updated: February 28, 2012 - 6:32 AM

The increased recognition of the long-term dangers of brain trauma, across all sports, has forced hockey's leaders to consider ways to reduce blows to the head.

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Brothers Aaron and Derek Boogaard demonstrated the shirt grabbing technique at Puck Masters Hockey training in Regina, Saskatchewan, July 12, 2007. The brothers ran the Derek and Aaron Boogaard Fighting camp. The camp taught kids not just how to throw a punch while staying on their skates but also some of the finer points of hockey fighting, like how to avoid getting hurt.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune file

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FRESNO, CALIF. - Viewing fighting as a safety issue in light of increasing concussion research, and unwilling to wait for the National Hockey League to propose changes, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are seriously considering rules to effectively end fighting in nonprofessional leagues as soon as next season.

The rules would apply to dozens of leagues stretching from near the Arctic Circle to south Texas. Even the three top junior leagues in Canada, major fight-friendly feeder systems to the NHL, are considering immediate ways to make fighting a rarity, not an expectation.

"The appetite is there," said David Branch, president of the Canadian Hockey League. "The time is certainly right to move forward."

Hockey has long been a rare team sport that widely condones the interruption of a game so that two or more players can trade punches. But for boys starting at age 16 or so, from the rough-and-tumble junior leagues to the NHL, fighting has usually been minimally penalized (often with five minutes in the penalty box) and, thus, widely practiced, condoned, even celebrated.

That may change soon. The increased recognition of the long-term dangers of brain trauma, across all sports, has forced hockey's leaders to consider ways to reduce blows to the head.

The issue has dominated meetings of hockey's umbrella organizations. Most leaders believe that rules to deter fighting will be significantly stiffened during organization-wide meetings this summer.

"The official stance from Hockey Canada is that we want to get rid of fighting as quickly as we can," said Bob Nicholson, the organization's chief executive, overseeing more than half a million amateur players across Canada, including about 32,000 adults and 10,000 juniors (16 to 20 years old) not in the top-tier Canadian Hockey League. "Our ultimate goal is to remove fighting."

Fights can cause concussions

For decades, debates centered on whether hockey could survive without fighting. Now the talk is about how long the sport can live with fighting.

Such a change of attitude has perched hockey at one of the most significant crossroads of its long history, as leaders see an opening to extinguish the game's tradition of intermittent anarchy, particularly among teenage combatants.

"One of the causes of concussions is fighting," Branch said. "And I believe that there is more and more recognition that our game does not need fighting to survive, to be part of the entertainment package, you might say, because of the concerns of injuries and other concerns that could very well be a byproduct of fighting."

Harsher penalties

In January, USA Hockey's Junior Council discussed emergency legislation that would combat fighting with much harsher penalties, starting as early as next fall. The council may propose a system like that used in the NCAA, where players are immediately ejected for fighting and progressive suspensions are doled out for subsequent bouts. Fights in college hockey are rare.

"A switch has been flipped within the United States to address the fighting issue in junior hockey," said John Vanbiesbrouck, the former NHL goalie who leads USA Hockey's Junior Council.

Proposed changes would be subject to the vote of USA Hockey's board of directors, which could come in June.

Changing the rules may be the easy part. Changing the culture is something else entirely.

The NHL and most professional minor leagues in North America, while working to address blows to the head during the course of game action, have shown no appetite for altering rules to reduce fights. (There have been about 400 NHL fights this season, occurring in about 35 percent of games.

In the past couple of years, four brains of deceased NHL players have been found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive disease caused by repeated head trauma.

The most striking case involved former Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died at 28 of an accidental alcohol-and-painkiller overdose.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said healthy attendance figures shows that fans don't want to banish fighting, and he cast doubt on the science linking hockey fights to brain damage.

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