It will take more than four weeks — the approximate amount of time the Ontario Hockey League has been open for business this season — to determine the effectiveness of a first-year rule. But the belief is that whenever it’s ultimately judged, months or years later, the verdict will be one of approval.
“It’s too early to form any opinions one way or another,” said OHL commissioner David Branch. “But clearly the concept of the rule received great support among our teams.”
The rule is one the NHL will monitor. It revolves around a 10-fight-per-season threshold.
If a player fights an 11th time, he will earn a two-game suspension. Another two-game suspension will apply for Fights No. 12, 13, 14, and 15. Starting with the 16th fight, his team also will be fined $1,000 for each scrap. If referees designate a player the instigator in any fight above the 10-game threshold, he will be suspended for four games.
The league, which considers itself a primary feeder for the NHL, approved the rule in August. It was implemented upon the start of regular-season play in September.
“It’s designed to hopefully make it clear that the one-dimensional player can’t really survive in this day and age,” Branch said. “The game has changed so much in terms of speed and skill. A team can ill afford not to play a high level of skill players. We really believe the game is evolving.”
Bruins prospect Lane MacDermid played in the OHL for three seasons. Each year, he crossed the 10-fight marker. Had the rule been in place during his junior career, the Providence wing might have kept his gloves on more often.
“I probably would have changed the way I approach a fight,” said MacDermid. “I may not fight as much. Sometimes when your team needs a boost, that’s when you go out and do it. When this rule’s in place, you might not have that chance unless you want to get suspended. You’d just have to change the way you fight.”
The knuckle-draggers among us (hand raised way above crossbar height) hope fighting in pro hockey remains vibrant. It is one of few segments in the game in which its stewards practice honor, respect, and civility.
Consider Shawn Thornton. One of the toughest guys in sports. Will fight all the heavyweights. Understands the right time to scrap. Stops throwing when his opponent loses an edge.
But Thornton is a 35-year-old man. He has almost 20 years on some of the boys who are trying to become the next Thornton. Both science and common sense dictate that 16 years old is too young for hockey players to fight.
Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, believes fighting at young ages should be discouraged. Cantu points to myelin, the material that serves as insulation for nerves in the brain. According to Cantu, young brains are not as myelinated. Also, a boy’s neck is not developed enough to provide maximum support for his head. Punches to a still-developing brain may have health ramifications later in life.
“It’s important not to have a head injury at any age, but it’s particularly important not to have it at a young age,” Cantu said last year. “Fighting is certainly to be discouraged, especially at young ages, for those reasons.”
The OHL considered the concussion issue when introducing the new rule. The league also discussed the more macro view of the fighting culture, particularly in relation to young boys.
Teenage life is already complicated. But think of the layers involved when a 16-year-old — or maybe his coach or parent — concludes that fighting other youngsters, rather than scoring or defending or stopping pucks, is the optimal career path.
Enforcers speak of the emotional depths they must negotiate to gear themselves up to fight. Teenagers are hardly equipped to deal with the mental strain of fighting a counterpart in front of their teammates, friends, coaches, and parents. Junior hockey is no place for such a hostile work environment.
MacDermid has no regrets. As an Owen Sound rookie in 2006-07, he recalled coach Mike Stothers suggesting that his fists might be useful in rounding out his skills. Had MacDermid not had three seasons of practice, he might not have been ready to take on heavyweight Mike Rupp at Madison Square Garden in his NHL debut last year.
“He didn’t force me or anything,” MacDermid said. “He just maybe gave me a nudge to try to incorporate that into my game. To be honest, he kind of told me a couple times.
“I just started to roll with it. The following year, I continued to go down that path and did incorporate that into my game. I think it’s really helped me. I like to play a physical game and be a good team player.
“A lot of guys really respect guys who go out and protect the other players. I try to take on that role — to do the best for my team and fight when I have to.”
Through seven games this season, 17-year-old Joshua Chapman had fought an OHL-leading four times. The Sarnia defenseman would be on pace to fight 38 times. It is unknown how the 10-fight rule will affect Chapman’s pace.
Last year, according to hockeyfights.com, Windsor’s Ty Bilcke led the OHL with 37 fights. Through nine games this season, Bilcke had fought three times.
Currently, the OHL has no plan to augment the rule after this season. Long-term, it could be a checkpoint toward a no-fighting standard.
“There will always be fighting,” Branch acknowledged. “It’s how you address it. This is a game of such level and such emotion. You have action and reaction.
“Will we ever get to a fight-and-you’re-out rule? I don’t know. We may.
“That brings with it a host of other challenges we must clearly take into consideration before we introduce such a measure. But if nothing else, [fighting] is being discussed. That’s a positive in itself.”
Hutchinson fixed and fit
Even before the 2011-12 season began, Michael Hutchinson knew there was something wrong with his hips.
“I went on the ice one day and completely lost all flexibility,” recalled the Providence Bruins goalie. “I started doing physio before and after practice all year. It was one of those things where they told me it could get better on its own. If not, I’d have to get it fixed after the season.
“It just never really got better. It got manageable to where I could play. But it was something that once the season was done, I figured to get it fixed now, recover a little bit quicker, and have a clean slate coming in this year.”
Tim Thomas is out of the picture. Tuukka Rask (Czech Republic) and Anton Khudobin (Russia) are locked out and playing overseas. That makes the 22-year-old Hutchinson, the team’s third-round pick in 2008, the No. 1 goalie currently active in the Bruins system.
So, in hindsight, it was imperative that Hutchinson underwent offseason labrum surgery on both hips. Dr. Bryan Kelly oversaw the repairs at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. He performed the same operation on Thomas after the 2009-10 season.
It has become a common procedure for goalies. Doctors believe that the load goalies place on their hips over thousands of butterfly repetitions causes tears to occur. Even young puckstoppers like Hutchinson are at risk.
But as Thomas has proven, goalies can thrive post-surgery. Hutchinson hopes he’ll become the latest.
As a rookie in 2010-11 adapting to the AHL, Hutchinson relied on his athleticism — perhaps too much, he admits — to make tough saves. Last season, because of the pain in his hips, Hutchinson didn’t turn to the acrobatics. Instead, he huddled deeper in his crease, stopped pucks positionally, and worked on his rebound control.
Now, with his hips fixed up, Hutchinson is aiming to apply both athleticism and technique to his play.
“I feel great,” Hutchinson said. “My hips feel better now than they did when I was playing junior hockey. Still some minor work that needs to be done — gaining strength, getting stability back — but it’s nice being on the ice and not being in any pain.”
Late start proves costly
The NHL and the Players Association concluded two days of negotiations Thursday, with little progress being made on either front: the main economic arguments or the secondary issues. The next meeting has yet to be scheduled, indicating that the next round of cancellations is forthcoming. In hindsight, the lack of movement underscores the failing of both sides to initiate negotiations earlier. The sides could have started talks during the 2011-12 season; the All-Star break could have been a possible point on the calendar for that. Instead, bargaining sessions didn’t begin until late June. Had the sides been able to gain any traction on the peripheral matters (health insurance, drug testing, ice conditions), they could have concentrated their current efforts on how to divide the $3.3 billion pot. Instead, they’re treading water on both fronts. “In retrospect, when you look back at it, while we were all hopeful over the course of the summer that we had plenty of time to get a deal done, maybe the fault lies in that we didn’t start negotiations until June 29,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters in New York last week. “It goes back to the level of urgency with the Players Association and not being prepared to have those discussions.”
School of hard knocks
One of the arguments against banning fighting in junior hockey is, ironically, one of safety. The theory goes that without fighting experience in junior, players would be ill-equipped to throw down once they turned pro. “I’ve always believed that fighting is about a lot of experience,” said the Bruins’ Lane MacDermid. “You can teach technical things. But when I’m in a fight, I don’t really think a whole lot. It’s more about getting comfortable and getting those fights in. In junior, that’s where I really put that into my game and got really comfortable.” The counter argument uses college hockey, where fighting is not allowed, as an example. Two of the NHL’s busiest brawlers are George Parros and Kevin Westgarth. Both played four years at Princeton.
It’s not the same
Feel shame for losing 10 minutes of my Tuesday last week watching Zdeno Chara’s Lev Praha club face off against Alex Ovechkin and Moscow Dynamo on ESPN2. The network that has ignored the NHL is showing a select number of KHL games during the lockout. Based on the Chara-Ovechkin snoozer, it’s unlikely ESPN2 will be crowing about the ratings. Reasons include the big rink, dropoff in KHL versus NHL pace, and the unfamiliarity with most of the league’s players. The KHL games will be a casual driveby for even the most enthusiastic puckhead. The Praha-Dynamo match underscored what makes the NHL special: the unparalleled brutish hunger for the puck. Conflict drives the game. Now, the only conflict is at the bargaining table.
Former Boston College captain Tommy Cross was among the last round of players Providence assigned to the ECHL prior to Friday’s start of the regular season. Cross, Tyler Randell, and Adam Morrison were shuttled to South Carolina. The lockout played a role in the defenseman’s assignment. Had the NHL been up and running, Matt Bartkowski or Torey Krug could have broken camp with the varsity. Instead, both Bartkowski and Krug are in Providence. Cross, the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2007, will have to work on his skating and pace to rejoin the AHL club.
The NHLPA is paying to continue health insurance for players and their families until the lockout’s conclusion. The NHL ceased paying for policies when the lockout started . . . Adirondack, Philadelphia’s farm club, projects to be one of the AHL Eastern Conference’s toughest teams. Coaches will be wary of Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, who most likely would have been among the Flyers’ top six forwards had the NHL started on time . . . Ex-Bruin Rick Middleton is one of 10 recent electees for the Massachusetts Hockey Hall of Fame. The others: Tom “Red” Martin, Don Whiston, Ed “Butch” Songin, Karen Kay, Bill Kipouras, Tom Lynch, Charles “Mike” Tenney, Alan “Doc” Ashare, and Joe Ferraro. They will be inducted Nov. 14 at Lombardo’s in Randolph. To purchase tickets, contact Jim Prior at firstname.lastname@example.org or (781) 938-4400 . . . Some big-time ringers participated in Michigan’s alumni game last Sunday. Ex-Bruin Mike Knuble potted a pair of goals, including one via a setup from former Black-and-Golder Matt Hunwick. Jack Johnson also dressed for the game . . . The Bruins would have opened the regular season last Thursday against the Flyers. NBC Sports Network would have carried the game. Instead, the network showed “The Fan,” the Robert DeNiro/Wesley Snipes movie about a sports enthusiast who goes over the edge. Well played, NBCSN.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.