Dilemma of discipline in junior hockey

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:37 AM ET

LONDON, ONT. - Ontario Hockey League discipline does not, as has been suggested, consist of commissioner David Branch spinning a Wheel of Fortune replica while Vanna White applauds in the background.

There is no roulette table in sight at league headquarters in Toronto.

Though one might picture a poorly lit punishment chamber or dungeon, the decisions that cause so much confusion, amazement, outrage and eye-rubbing originate from a rather standard boardroom outfitted withfourPVR s, aneditingsuite and a viewing screen that covers an entire wall.

It is here that Branch and vice-president Ted Baker reached such conclusions as Niagara's Tom Kuhnhackl deserving 20 games for nailing Kitchener's Ryan Murphy, while London's Ryan Rupert required a five-game sitdown for a much-debated slash of pesky Soo Greyhound Nick Cousins.

The OHL has more technology than ever to make these decisions -- it posts videos explaining the rationale behind decisions and has had lots of practice, with 10 suspensions of 10 or more games so far this season. But the prevailing attitude has been the league is as inconsistent as it was in the past.

"Obviously, there's been a focus on checking to the head this year," Baker said. "The floor is at a higher level than it was last year. Teams understand.

"We find it's the three-to-five game ones that are often the most argued about, that there could've been a game or two more or less, not the bigger ones."

The past few seasons, the league pushed to improve its TV offerings and increase viewership. Another result has been improved visuals with which to judge suspendable actions.

But even then, it can be a head-scratcher. On Saturday in Owen Sound, London's Max Domi hurt Attack import Artur Gavrus with a staggering body check that sent everyone filing into the "clean hit or not" camps.

When you watch something over and over and still aren't positive it's a head check, you start to gain an understanding for what Branch and Baker have to dissect.

"Our intent isn't to re-referee games," Baker said. "Discipline isn't the most pleasant part of David Branch's job, nor mine. We want to create a better environment for our players. It's about learning and teams have already instituted that by taking our videos and studying them."

The first thing learned is there's a precedent for everything.

Branch and Baker have, at their disposal, a video catalogue of every five-minute and game-misconduct penalty handed out. They can compare and contrast on the big screen.

"There are similar plays that come up and it helps to look at them," Baker said, "but you quickly find no two are the same.

"You'll come across something you've never seen before and that's part of what makes this business, and hockey, so great."

Though the OHL's rules of play have a big-league feel, they stop short at suspensions.

When NHL justice minister Brendan Shanahan meets with Branch, they don't discuss conforming their disciplinary measures.

"The NHL has its own standard," Baker said.

And there are different aims in play. The NHL is a destination; the OHL is a pathway. The OHL doesn't only need to protect its players, it needs to convince the parents of minor hockey kids that safety concerns are front and centre.

The Canadian Hockey League is in a recruiting war with a U.S. college hockey system also vying for the top teenaged talent.

And when those stars suit up in major junior hockey, it's important the league does its part to reduce the risk of career-threatening injury. It doesn't serve the OHL at all if, say, Sarnia sniper Nail Yakupov is hurt by a head check, can't play a bunch of games, an NHL GM gets scared and he ends up being picked fourth instead of first overall.

There's money and status as the best developmental league in the world at stake.

There's also a tug-of-war between equity and common sense. The OHL brass admits this -- they have been relatively busy.

"There was a couple weeks back where we didn't have any (video) to look at," Baker said, "but that hasn't been the norm."

They might not be spinning a wheel, but the discipline game is forever changing.

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