OHL commissioner eyes moderate changes

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

Get ready for the growth of a four-man officiating crew, increased TV coverage and a keen eye on safety measures to protect players.

But don't expect an exodus of U.S. teams, a profound draft makeover or extra netting surrounding OHL rinks to protect fans from speeding pucks anytime soon.

Each day in this economic climate, it looks more impossible for the NHL to keep every franchise in the United States afloat. But OHL commissioner and Canadian Hockey League president David Branch doesn't share that concern.

The Erie Otters are poised to make the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Plymouth Whalers performed the league's most stunning in-season turnaround and the Spirit have enjoyed one of their most rewarding campaigns since moving to Saginaw.

"Absolutely (they're strong)," Branch said in a wide-ranging interview. "We've seen no significant impact on the league (in attendance and sponsorship declines). There's no question the American economy has been affected to a greater extent (than Canada), and we're not different than any other sport, but our product is seen as a more affordable option. The selling is done months in advance. Of course, we're not going to be without our challenges."

Television exposure never hurts as a sales point. Full rinks in London and Kitchener, big crowds in Windsor and Ottawa, and even a crammed barn in Brampton at least contribute to the league's healthy image.

"We're at 85% of our games televised right now," Branch said. "A partnership with Shaw Cable to get a package of Soo Greyhounds games on has helped increase that number. You're always striving for 100%. We do have 100% coverage on the Internet right now."

And as the regular season enters its final two weekends, the OHL will carry the maximum number of on-ice officials now and throughout the playoffs. It's generally accepted two refs are better than one.

It's more expensive, but Branch knows its worth.

"We're heading toward it (four-man crews for every game)," he said.

For years, the mentality of the OHL as a mini-NHL had been strong. But this season, Branch garnered more attention for taking the lead on increased suspensions for fighting without helmets.

Will it lead to the end of hockey fighting? Branch has tweaked the rule to protect linesmen from getting accidentally punched in the face.

"It was put in for safety and in the light of what happened to the young man who died (Don Sanderson of the Whitby Dunlops). We don't want to see anyone fighting without helmets," Branch said. "We started with a $50 fine and that didn't work. We raised it to $100 and it still didn't have an effect. So we had to put in more measures."

Helmets are hard to remove if the chin strap is securely fastened. Branch stays in contact with equipment supplier Reebok-CCM, based in Montreal, on changes in the design of sticks, padding and skates.

The league instituted neck guards late last year after a skate cut Florida Panther Richard Zednik.

"Safety is always the main concern," Branch said. "Last month, the three commissioners -- myself, (Quebec's) Gilles Courteau and Ron Robison of the Western Hockey League -- toured Reebok's facility. We want to make sure our players are properly protected."

In-season drug testing was also introduced this year.

There have been two major incidents where fans have been struck by errant pucks in Windsor and Saginaw this season. But Branch isn't committed to protective netting surrounding the entire rink.

"Higher glass (can be looked at), but I don't think it's feasible to see netting (all the way around the rink)."

Nor is it in the league's best interest to make prospective players declare themselves eligible for the OHL draft. Some teams want rules in place to stop young talent from using the NCAA as a shield to dictate where they get picked.

"We want parity in our league and we're constantly looking at ways to make it happen," Branch said, "but as for having players declare, I don't think that will work."


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