What is the future of fighting in hockey?
The long-debated question came up again last week with the news that the QMJHL would be “banning” fighting starting in the 2023-24 season.
“At the member assembly last Feb. 23, the member assembly endorsed a ban on fighting,” Richard Letourneau, president of the QMJHL’s board of members. “So, yes, fights are banned, now there are some terms left to finalize. Indeed, we have an expanded hockey committee formed of (league directors) to figure out how to apply this rule, get it accepted by the minister, and get it all endorsed by the member assembly in June.”
As for what a ban on fighting really means is to be determined. This rule change was discussed at a press conference last week introducing the QMJHL’s new commissioner, Mario Cecchini, who said he intended to meet with Quebec sports minister Isabelle Charest on the topic. Cecchini noted there would be discussions on just what the punishment would be for fighters, but acknowledged it needed to be “severe.”
Whatever they decide, the QMJHL anticipates making a public announcement in June.
Neither the OHL or WHL has announced plans to further discipline fighting, though the OHL has tried to curb it before. In 2012, the OHL introduced a 10-fight limit before a player would get a two-game suspension, and lowered the threshold to three games ahead of the 2016-17 season. The WHL, like the OHL, has tried to curb “staged fights” by ejecting players who drop the gloves immediately after a faceoff.
Fighting’s involvement in the game is different across the three CHL leagues. Here you can see how many fighting majors total, and per game, have been handed out in the WHL, OHL and QMJHL (and how it compares to the NHL) over the past five years. Note that the QMJHL’s quick drop in 2020-21 coincides with a rule change ahead of that season, where a fighting major also came with a 10-minute misconduct, and a suspension would follow your third fight of the season.
Note: This shows fighting majors total (roughly two per fight) and how many per game in parentheses. Stats via Sportsnet Stats.
So, what does the Q’s move mean for its players? What does it mean, if anything, to fighting’s future at the pro level?
We canvassed some of Sportsnet’s on-air personalities for their takes and got a wide range of perspectives that include former player and Stanley Cup champion Jamal Mayers, former NCAA player and current analyst Justin Bourne, scout Jason Bukala and others.
What was your initial reaction to the QMJHL’s intention to ban fighting? What affect do you think this will have on its players and their development, if any?
Jamal Mayers: It’s a very slippery slope because the issue is, when you take it away, you can’t ever put it back in. The problem becomes, without it, if the game gets intense and someone does something we deem, as players, to be overboard and it requires what we think of as ‘self-policing,’ what ends up happening if I can’t go fight you? What am I going to do? I’m going to do something similar or worse to one of your players. Fighting can cool the temperature when things get elevated. A lot of times, if a fight doesn’t happen, the temperature remains high. When it remains high in an intense game, you run the risk of something worse happening. That said, I have a 10-year-old and if he’s lucky enough to play at that level, I don’t want him fighting. So, I’m not a dinosaur who thinks the game doesn’t need to evolve. I think it’s an overreaction because it’s already happening organically. The numbers show it’s already gone down significantly.
Jeff Marek: Even though we still don’t have any idea of the details about how they plan to implement it, I’m not surprised at all at the Q’s decision to ban fighting. The league has been trending this direction for a couple of years and there’s tremendous political pressure that’s been placed on teams to head in this direction. As for development of players, the ban will have very little effect. There’s no fighting in college hockey and, last time I checked, they’ve been producing elite-level talent for years. And, to be honest, I’m curious to see if both the WHL and OHL go down a similar path in the future.
Justin Bourne: Having played NCAA hockey, I don’t think it’s an apocalyptic decision. The hockey will still be great. There was a moment in college where a player had been taking egregious cheap shots to the point where tempers boiled over, and that whole debacle still ended in a fight anyway. If something is so awful that it needs to be “defended,” I can see players saying it’s worth a suspension. Otherwise, it rarely comes to that, and I don’t think it will materially affect the product. I do think it’s a disadvantage to the players in that league, though, as long as pro leagues continue to have fighting. Playing with the threat of having to answer for egregious missteps can change the way some play, and if the QMJHL becomes a place that develops “less-aggressive” players, that’s a problem for their league. The NHL is still so physical that intimidation and fearlessness will always be prized.
Jason Bukala: I recognize some people wanting to eliminate fighting in the game altogether, but I’m concerned about the trickle-down effect the new rule will have overall. Players need to be held accountable for their actions. It’s part of the fabric of the game. If someone is running around, hitting everything in sight and crossing the line with dirty play, he needs to understand the opponent isn’t going to put up with his actions. I don’t support staged fighting at the major junior level, though. The game has evolved. Fighting as soon as a puck drops is not necessary.
Mark Spector: This season, the QMJHL has averaged one fight every eight games. In the past six seasons, fighting has decreased by about 75 per cent. A ban on fighting will be like a ban on people driving Citroen or Lada automobiles. Almost nobody is doing it now – what difference can a ban make? We won’t even notice it.
Eric Engels: This is about percentages to me. Like the percentage of fights in the Q dropping so dramatically over the last five years that we’re not taking that big of a step by eliminating it. But it’s also about the percentage of players who graduate from the Q – or junior hockey in general – to leagues that actually pay players enough to make a living off hockey. It’s a small percentage, and it doesn’t make much sense for anyone outside of it to even consider taking on the risk that comes with fighting. I’m also for reducing the possibility of a head injury due to a fight to zero per cent, so I hope to see this eventually permeate the other leagues. At the end of the day, fights have always been penalized. We’re just talking now about stiffer penalties. Ones I think are more appropriate to offset the potentially devastating outcome of a fight. And I don’t see this negatively affecting development for the small percentage of players who move on to top pro leagues. It doesn’t seem to hinder the development or consideration of NCAA prospects.
What do you think is the future of fighting in pro hockey?
Jamal Mayers: I think it will go away itself over time. I do. I think it might be 15 years, it might be 20 years, I don’t think it’s in the next 10 years, but I think in 20 years it won’t be the same game. It will go away, naturally. But there’s an element of fear to the NHL game. That edge, that fear that’s there, that’s palpable as a fan and when you’re watching it. You take that element out and you run the risk of it becoming too much of a skills contest, and then lose some of what makes our game so great. I don’t think people can appreciate the intensity or ferocity it takes to play an NHL game. Fighting is part of that edge. I think there could be creative ways to keep it in but penalize it further (such as a 10-minute misconduct). But banning it in the NHL would be an overreaction, at this point.
Jeff Marek: In pro hockey, it will continue to be part of the game until there is a serious movement to end it. And that’s not happening now under this leadership. Perhaps the next leadership group will have more of an appetite to address the issue, but this group is fine with fighting’s position in the game. But on the question of the future of fighting, I think eventually it will be abolished from the game. I’m of the belief that eventually players will all wear full face shields and that may do fighting in, once and for all.
Justin Bourne: Nobody has to fight, of course, and anyone who jumps someone who doesn’t want to fight will receive a suspension just like if it were banned. The most important part of allowing fighting to remain in the game will be educating the players on the risks, teaching them about CTE and the players who came before them, letting them know just how risky a decision to fight is. Because once that’s accomplished, I think the NHL appreciates how much fans enjoy a good dust-up, and I think it’s a little like UFC or boxing, where those participating in fights are aware of the risks involved, and those who choose to fight will be tacitly accepting those risks. Everyone I talk to assumes what’s happening in the QMJHL will come for the NHL eventually. While fighting may decline, I personally find it hard to believe the league won’t do what it can to keep that element around.
Eric Francis: I understand the politics and rationale behind the QMJHL’s decision to propose a fighting ban for young men, but I’m not worried it will have an effect on the NHL. Intimidation is an important part of the game and the threat of a fight plays an integral role in policing the sport. Remember, the NHL is in the entertainment business, and fighting is a huge draw for many fans.
Mark Spector: Hockey’s dirty little secret is this: A large percentage of paying customers both approve of and enjoy watching the odd scrap. If fighting disappears organically, as is the ongoing case, nobody can blame someone for eliminating fighting. But if junior players cease to fight, as they are, then eventually the pro ranks will be devoid of participants. Fighting will disappear organically. It’s happening now.
Eric Engels: I don’t think it’ll ever fully disappear, but it will become largely obsolete because I do believe it will be more heavily penalized.