Does Fighting Still Belong in the OHL?
The Hamilton Bulldogs are in a bitter dogfight with the Oshawa Generals for the eighth and final playoff position. The Bulldogs have put themselves into a position where they’ve got to do whatever it takes to win a game. Hockey is one of the few sports that truly embodies the full meaning of the phrase “whatever it takes”, and junior hockey has taken quite a bit of heat this past week over the fact that fighting still remains apart of the equation. There has been much light shed on the topic in the last decade that links fighting, concussions and long-term brain injury. Is it in the best interest of the players to continue allowing them to drop the gloves?
David Branch met with the Canadian Hockey League executives on Wednesday and according to Bob McKenzie an agenda item during their meeting was fighting in the three CHL leagues. The requirement for this discussion is likely a direct result of the article that James Mirtle had in The Globe and Mail on the plight of former minor hockey enforcer, Hamilton resident Rob Frid. Mirtle lays out that Frid is currently battling a long list of neuological and pychological disorders that are a direct result from being asked to drop the mitts time and time again.
“I’m not defending fighting. I don’t know if there’s any place for fighting in our game.” – CHL President and OHL Commissioner David Branch (Mirtle / The Globe and Mail)
The players perspective
A key marketing piece for any OHL team is the hype that comes with developing future NHL players. Gone are the days where you’re going to see a team include highlight reels of their players throwing haymakers – à la Don Cherry/Rock’em Sock’em style montage. The fact that fighting isn’t directly marketed to fans anymore doesn’t stop fans from buying tickets, nor does it stop the players from engaging in a battle. This season has seen at least 15 players wearing a Bulldogs jersey receive a five-minute fighting major. Clearly there is no fear from the locker room, but the question has to be asked, does the concussion issue give pause to any of the combatants?
The Bulldog’s team captain Justin Lemcke has faced more adversity this season than you would like to see any player go through, suffering what very well could have been a season ending broken femur. In the eleven games he’s played in since returning to the line up, Lemcke has engaged in three fighting majors, showcasing that this Bulldogs team isn’t a team that can be intimidated or pushed around. Take last Saturday’s tilt against the Guelph Storm for example, forward Brock Philips invited rookie Matt Strome to dance, Lemcke felt more than compelled to jump in. “It’s not like I’m out there looking to fight every night, but, when a player is asking our 16 year old first rounder Stromer to fight, then it’s kinda my responsibility if I’m on the ice to let that guy know and it ended up being a fight tonight”. Nothing staged about the event, simply an aspect of the game that comes from the dynamics of a contact sport.
Obviously, as a leader of the team, Lemcke has his finger on the pulse of the dressing room. When asked if the players every talk about the dangers of concussions and the possibility of being effected by Chronic Traumatic (CTE), it became clear that there is a bit of a stigma around the subject.
“I think it’s one of those touchy subjects. I know personally I’ve had one myself and it’s kind of a different injury. It’s more like it’s in your head that it’s happened and it’s a little scary and I know other guys who’ve been through it but I think it’s like, honestly you don’t even talk about it. When you know a guy has one you know you’re obviously concerned for his healthy but I mean, it’s probably one of the toughest things about hockey is probably head injuries. You know how seriously they’re taking it, and how serious the players are taking it too, but that’s something that not really talked about unless it happens.” – Justin Lemcke on the conversation surrounding concussions.
The Bulldogs’ resident heavy weight is Brody Morris, who has recently been forced to transition from his life long position as a forward to playing up on the fourth line thanks to Lemcke’s return to the lineup. Morris is a veteran on this team, a leader in the locker room, and has eight fights on his resume this season. Two more and he’ll face a ten game suspension, one of the discipline initiatives that Commissioner Branch has enacted in an effort to curb the practice. Morris is one of the players most effected by the way the game is evolving, and was very honest about how he sees the situation. “Obviously its hard not to think about that, it’s such a serious injury, and it’s ended a lot of famous fighter’s I guess you wanna say, or guys who play physical, careers. That’s the risk I’m willing to take. If I can help my team with being physical and being that guy and getting them going, then I’m doing my job”. When it comes to playing the game we all love, its obvious that these young men are willing to take the risk.
Ban the beatings?
There is an audible cry in some corners of every arena to change the discipline structure surrounding fighting. Listen to an interview that James Mirtle had with TSN Winnipeg 1290 radio hosts Hustler and Lawless and you’ll hear them flat out call for an end to fighting, so that we’re not paying these teenagers to risk long-term brain injuries.
Hamilton Bulldogs Coach and GM has confidence that the Ontario Hockey League has been and will continue to be leaders when it comes to the issue surrounding concussion risks. “I think our league has been leaders in the head injuries and concussion protocols and the progress that a lot of the leagues above us have kinda come in line after they’ve seen how important that it is and how it’s worked so successfully”. Several Bulldogs players have suffered concussions this season (Petti, Luff, Laishram, Mendonca) and it was very obvious that everyone running the bench took great care in identifying the issues immediately. “We take it very seriously as individual teams and as a league. Head hits, fighting, all of those things are down but you don’t want to see kids get hurt. They’re bigger and stronger than they’ve ever been so it’s critical.” Ultimately, the number of fights is declining annually, and it might come down to the game moving away from ‘goons’ naturally rather than fighting being banned.