Gloves stay on

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

The statistics tell you that fighting in hockey is on the endangered species list.

Just when that aspect of the game will become extinct is open to conjecture, though.

Fighting has taken a big hit in the Ontario Hockey League. Fighting is down 36 per cent since 2004. It dropped 33 per cent last year from the year before and is down another three per cent this season.

The number of fighting majors in the OHL over the first 204 games of 2004-05 was 521. That dropped to 343 in 2005-06 and, over a 204-game span this season, that dropped again to 333.

The trend is the same in the Western Hockey League. After 440 games of the 2004-05 season, there were 599 fighting majors handed out. Over the same period in 2005-06, there were 440, and 434 majors called over the same time frame this season.

There was also a drop in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. From 2004-05 to 2005-06, there was a drop of 18 per cent in fights per game, from 2.65 to 2.23.

It's an indication fighting is no longer the priority it once was, that stiffer penalties have dampened the spirits of many who might engage in fisticuffs.

The question is, how long before fighting is legislated out of the game?

"Fighting is on the way out of our game," said OHL commissioner David Branch. "It's a natural evolution and we're moving away from it. When you look at the new standards of enforcement, the change in the way the game is played, when you point to events like the world junior tournament and you never see any fighting there . . .

"I was asked a question on a program, 'Would you be in favour of removing fighting from the game?' My answer was yes."

That doesn't mean the move is imminent. Branch said banning fighting is not a "priority."

"There's no move afoot," Branch said. "We're pleased with the standards of enforcement. We undertook a huge step, with the two-man (refereeing) system and other rule changes. You've got to be careful that you don't revolutionize the game because that could lead to other issues. In due course, we'll address other needs as we see them.

"Blows to the head, we'd like to get rid of them. We'd like to see the elimination of hitting from behind, we're working on that. There are priorities and you address the priorities."

Talk of fighting always generates enormous discussions. Many people would have believed it inconceivable that fighting would become such a small part of the game. Many still consider fighting a necessary evil that acts as a deterrent to players who would take liberties during a game.

"I think for sure the day of the neanderthal that gets the tap (on the shoulder) are over, or you would certainly hope so," Owen Sound Attack general manager Mike Futa said. "The game is just too fast and kids who can't play a regular shift are generally a minor penalty waiting to happen. In order to have that proper balance, you have to be careful to not allow kids to go out and freelance on the other team's best players. You hope there's going to be proper penalties assessed."

Like many hockey people, Futa decries the "lack of respect," in the game.

"If fighting is going to be removed, there can't be players who continually hit players from behind, be careless with the stick or show no general respect, because they know they are going to be protected," Futa said.

"If fighting is going to be taken out of the game from a rules standpoint, then the rules have to be changed to put retribution in the hands of the officials."

The direction is obvious. While there is no outright ban on fighting, increased penalties, new rules and tighter enforcement make fighting costly in terms of penalty minutes and suspensions.

"I'm a big believer that you make adjustments here, adjustments there," Branch said. "Attitudes start to shift. Our game can stand on its own for the artistry and what it brings. We don't need sideshows."

Futa says getting rid of fighting in junior hockey is difficult as long as the NHL still allows it.

"You hear NHL general managers discuss how invaluable guys like Chris Neil are, the guy who can play and battle," Futa said. "How can a young player sort of showcase that he's a tremendous skater and tremendous player but that he has the other element to the game if he can't do it every so often in junior, so he can show the pros that he's capable of doing it?"


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