LONDON, ONT. - Fighting's days in junior hockey could be numbered, with the sport's North America overlords reportedly stick-handling options to ban it.
Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are mulling rule changes to end fighting in non-professional leagues as early as next season, The New York Times reports.
The newspaper said it's believed the umbrella groups for the sport are looking at multiple options to curb fighting, one of which might be to do as U.S. colleges do - immediately throwing fighting players out of games.
In most leagues, fighters now are simply slapped with a five-minute penalty.
The report comes amid growing awareness of the harm head trauma can cause athletes, especially hockey players.
If adopted, the rules would apply to dozens of North American leagues, including Canada's three major junior hockey leagues.
"The official stance from Hockey Canada is that we want to get rid of fighting as quickly as we can," Bob Nicholson, the organization's chief executive, told the newspaper.
"Our ultimate goal is to remove fighting."
Canada's major junior leagues, feeders to the National Hockey League where fighting would be untouched, are on board for curbing on-ice violence.
"The appetite is there," said David Branch, president of the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the juniors, including the Ontario Hockey League, in which the London Knights play. "The time is certainly right to move forward."
Branch, who's also OHL commissioner, said the sport doesn't need violence to sell.
"I believe that there is more and more recognition that our game does not need fighting to survive, to be part of the entertainment package, you might say, because of the concerns of injuries and other concerns that could very well be a byproduct of fighting."
Hockey is one of the few sports in which fighting doesn't get players ejected from games or suspended.
Peter Jaffe, a psychology professor at Western University and longtime crusader against sports violence, cheered the prospect of banning fighting from hockey. Eliminating fighting from junior hockey is especially important, he said Tuesday.
"Junior players are teenagers. They're very much at risk for serious injuries that are going to impact them throughout their critical years of development moving into adulthood," he said.
"With junior hockey players, it's totally irresponsible for us to let them fight for our entertainment when they're putting their lives, and definitely their future health, at risk."
Apart from the health risks for players, allowing fighting sends the wrong message to fans - especially children, he said.
A recent University of Montreal study found teen athletes are more vulnerable to concussions than adults or younger children. Lead researcher Dave Ellemberg says hits can disrupt the frontal lobe, harming short-term memory in still-growing teens.
Proponents of fighting claim it has a historic place in hockey. And there's no arguing there's an appetite for hockey fights.
Many spectators applaud, even rise to their feet, when players duke it out.
A year ago, Jaffe and Dr. Graham Pollett, the London region's chief public health official, co-signed a public letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, urging him to ban fighting.
Jaffe got a response from Bettman, saying the NHL takes player safety very seriously.
"Obviously, he didn't support a ban on fighting. He was silent on that issue," Jaffe said.
A ban on fighting at the non-professional level, Jaffe said, is the first step to eliminating on-ice fisticuffs in the big leagues.
"I think eventually there won't be fighting in the NHL," he said. "Canadians will still go to hockey games without the fighting."
There was mixed reaction to a possible fighting ban at the Western Fair Sports Centre Tuesday night.
"I think that (fighting) just brings a lot to the game for the spectators to watch. It gets the crowd involved and gets them excited," said Sue Smith.
Deanne Deelstra, a mother of two hockey-playing boys, said she'd like to see fighting eliminated.
"I really don't think it's part of the game. If it were to happen out on the street, or in any other sport, they would be penalized severely," she said.
Deelstra's husband, Tim, said there's a place in hockey for fisticuffs - but only at the professional level.
London Knights officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.