By: Joey Battaino
By now we have all heard about the rule changes that USA Hockey implemented during their Annual Congress last week in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The council recommended and passed stricter fighting rules for Tier I and Tier II players, including a 10-minute misconduct to accompany a five minute major for any fight during the course of a game.
Of course, we must not forget about the children, who according to USA Hockey's VP for the Junior Council John Vanbiesbrouck, would be helpless to gain any information about the connections to fighting and head trauma, if it were not for USA Hockey imposing rules on them.
"Our efforts in player saftey include a concerted focus on eliminating dangerous behavior in junior hockey,"
STOP! We are ALREADY on a very slippery slope on what USA Hockey considers "dangerous" as it is. By this logic, Open-ice body checks are dangerous. Are we on the road to eliminating checking in the junior ranks?
Many people will look at that last paragraph and see an overreaction. I have a feeling that owners of teams down south may be right on track with my thinking.
Lets take a look at the NAHL's South Division in the 2013-14 season, which had six out of their seven members in the top 10 in attendance. Lone Star (North Richland Hills, TX) was 11th.
According to hockeyfights.com, the South Division partook in 245 of the 348 fights in the league last season. In fact, the top four teams in fighting Corpus Christi, Rio Grande Valley, Amarillo, and Wichita Falls all compete in the South Division. This is hardly a coincidence, folks.
Rough house hockey south of the Mason-Dixon dates back to 1996 and the birth of the Western Professional Hockey League. In a time where folks still didn't know the North Stars moved to Dallas, a new professional hockey league took shape in nontraditional hockey markets like Rio Rancho, NM, Austin, Amarillo, and Waco. Attendance numbers soared and expansion soon followed for this rough and tumble league. The birth of the WPHL has been what has arguably kept the Stars in Dallas. Hear me out, here. Was the popularity of the Stars, just in Big D, enough to keep them in Dallas? No. They needed neighboring regions to buy in. The Stars needed the WPHL and in turn the WPHL needed the Stars. And just like the NAHL needs the South Division, the South Division needs fighting. Not a rodeo circus every night, but fans down here need to know that part of their entertainment value in a ticket is the chance that a fight will break out. That was what their hockey values were built on. Think of the first time you saw the game of hockey. Growing up in Michigan in the early 90's, I saw both sides of the game. Steve Yzerman would gracefully carry himself around the ice creating plays for his line mates, while big, bruising Bob Probert would barrel his way through defenders and not think twice about it. For many in the south, the first time they saw the game they were witnessing Jacques Mailhot fighting security guards in full hockey gear on the concrete in Rio Rancho. They thought that is what hockey was. People grew used to this style of hockey that contined into the last 2000's when the pro hockey model became much too expensive for smaller markets. Teams in the south switched to juniors to save a few bucks but not to sell their stripes. Amarillo, Topeka, Odessa, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, and Rio Grande Valley all continued to play the styles that had made them successful in the past.
My biggest fear in all of this is that I am not entirely convinced that the Tier II product can survive without fighting. Tier II provides an opportunity for players who might not have the speed or skill to compete at the Tier I level, a chance to get a Division I scholarship. What is never highlighted by the league, for obvious reasons, is it's physical, sometimes over-the-edge type play. I'll cite one major example. Weekly, the league requests members send in what they think are the top plays of the week. Not once this season, was a fight, or even a hit, highlighted. Hits and Fights can change the outlook of a hockey game and can be just as important as a goal or save. It's a game built on momentum.
At the end of the day, I don't think we are giving enough credit to the kids who are coming up to play juniors. With so much talk about head trauma awareness, isn't there enough information available to players that they can make their OWN educated decision on whether it is safe for them to fight or not? When I was younger, it was simple. If you are not a fighter, you put on a cage. A visor was as good as a welcome mat. If you were tough you didn't hide behind the cage because at that time, the rules didn't protect players who wore cages. Everything and everyone was fair game, as it should be.
Proponents to these rule changes will say that this is one step closer to eliminating fighting in junior hockey all together. With the information provided above, it would seem that we are one step closer to eliminating hockey in the South all together.
This is an opinion piece and in no way reflects the views of the Odessa Jackalopes, the NAHL, or any of it's members.