Prince Albert Raiders forward Justin Nachbaur and Red Deer Rebels forward Jaxsen Wiebe square off for a fight earlier this season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Column: Time to talk about fighting (again)

It appears we’re back at it again, with the fighting stuff.

I’ve blabbered on about this on several occasions here but it seems like we need a bit of a refresher based on some recent events.

Last week, a player in the American Hockey League, Kale Kessy was knocked unconscious and stretchered off the ice after a fight. Calls to ban fighting from hockey, along with those clamouring for it to continue, because of the essential role it plays in helping the players “police themselves” (and other reasons) also reverberated across hockey circles.

That was combined with what was supposed to be a discussion about banning fighting entirely in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, one of three leagues under the CHL umbrella.

Late last week, the QMJHL team representatives decided that they were unable to reach a consensus about fighting, so they delayed a decision on the ban until August.

“Whether we ban fighting outright or simply impose stricter penalties for fighting, those were the elements that made our debate very nuanced today,” said QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau told the Canadian Press at the time. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a discussion like that.

“This is a very sensitive matter. Everyone wants to understand it to the fullest. This is not a debate we’re taking lightly. We have to reach a decision at some point, for sure.”

That to be sure, would be an unpopular decision. But not unwise.

Am I anti-fighting you ask? More pro protecting the brains of young teenagers who I’m sure would love to have a long life ahead of them.

Listen, fighting doesn’t happen all that much anymore, so whatever the leagues have done so far is working. Along with suspensions if a player reaches a certain number of fights or linesmen jumping in early, the game has somewhat organically weeded out fighting. At the pro-level, there are fewer fights. Kids, see less of it, they don’t fight in minor hockey, so they don’t really see the need for it at the CHL level.

According to a story by Josh Horton of the Everett Daily Herald, the numbers back this up. In the 2016-17 WHL season up to mid-February, there were 559 fighting majors. This season, only 383 through that same period, down about 31 per cent.

One of the major arguments I’ve heard from players over my time covering the sport is that stick work becomes nearly nonsensical in leagues where there is no fighting, such as the NCAA and USports.

I would counter that by saying that a slash to the leg is far less harmful to a player’s long term health than two or three punches to the head. But I get it.

Which is also the problem, is the players still like or see the need for it. At the NHL level, players will defend fighting until the end of the earth, despite seeing the deadly consequences it has had for fighters who took their own lives like Derek Boogard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien.

That echoes all the way through the hockey community.

Also, when an entire arena is screaming “fight, fight, fight” at a pair of 16-year-olds, what choice do they have? The game and the culture of it, in that instance, is not protecting them.

That player may get the standing ovation of his life if he knocks down an opposing player. They don’t have the foresight to imagine what their lives will look like if they start fighting on a regular basis, only that it gets their team and the fans behind them at that moment.

So instead, the adults in the room need to protect teenagers from themselves.

I think the best way to curb fighting even further, without an outright ban would be a game misconduct for any fight. It already happens in minor hockey.

Because, in the heat of the moment, knowing you only have to sit for five minutes isn’t a deterrent. Sitting for a full game and maybe risk losing your spot in the lineup, has the potential to cause an extra second of thought and potentially avoiding a disaster scenario.

In the instance where a player thinks a teammate was the victim of a cheap shot and justice wasn’t served, I don’t love to see a fight, but I get it. A harsher penalty, but not an outright ban allows room for that. That number of fights would likely plummet again.

We will never have the old days of two or more line brawls a night with the penalty box overflowing, but hopefully, down the road players will weigh the risk and let fighting go the way of the dodo bird. Until them, it’s up to the adults to nudge them in the right direction.

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