USA Today Exclusive: How junior hockey has decreased fighting
April 6, 2016
Editors note: The following story appeared in Page 2 of the April 6, 2016 edition of the USA Today Sports section and was authored by lead NHL beat writer, Kevin Allen. It details the massive strides the NAHL and USHL, the top two junior leagues in the United States, have taken in the reduction of fighting in the game and the safety of its players.
By Kevin Allen, USA Today
Fighting in the NHL continues to decrease, but U.S junior hockey is where radical changes are being seen.
“Fighting is not part of the fabric in junior hockey in the United States anymore,” said Marc Boxer, USA Hockey’s director of junior hockey. “It’s not what kids are doing … no kid wants to take himself out of a game because the viewing he may get from NHL scouts and college scouts.”
The USA Hockey Player Safety Initiative was adopted in 2012 with a mandate to reduce unnecessary violence with tougher standards, harsher punishment and increased league scrutiny. Since then fighting and reckless hits have been down and the quality of play has been on the rise.
In 2011-12, the United States Hockey League had 265 fights in 480 games. This season, there have been 70 fights in 413 games for a decrease of 73.5%.
“Justice was being taken out of opponents’ hands and put into the league’s hands,” Fargo (N.D.) Force coach Cary Eades said.
Meanwhile fighting at the NHL level is at its lowest rate — at .28 fights per game — since 2000, when HockeyFights.com started compiling the data.
“I think the results have exceeded our expectations,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director for hockey operations.
The most recent rule change that has made biggest difference came in 2014 when the penalty for fighting in the USHL and North American Hockey League went from a five-minute major to a five-minute major plus a 10-minute misconduct.
“Not only has the level of play improved (in the USHL and NAHL), but also there are a greater number of potential prospects of interest for the both the collegiate and professional ranks,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of central scouting.
The NAHL hired former NHL referee Mark Faucette as the league’s director of player safety. He reviews on-ice behavior the same way the NHL's department of player safety reviews it. And in the USHL, Commissioner Bob Fallen said the amount of video the league reviews has “more than doubled" in the past three years.
"I’m a guy who played junior hockey in the 1970s and it was crazy back then,” Eades said. “I’m not an advocate of taking fighting out of the game altogether. But my players are my boys and I want the game to be safe for them. We know what it is going on with football and concussions. We want to make the game fast and exciting. But we also need it safe.”
There are also more American junior players being drafted by NHL teams. In 2015, 37 players were selected from the USHL, equaling the number of players picked from the Western Hockey League, and surpassing the Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld said he believes the level of play has improved because players’ focus is on the game, instead of worrying about the other confrontations.
“I think our players are in tune with the fact that they can play harder, play faster and play more intense up to the whistle knowing there is a barrier to unwanted and unnecessary behavior,” Frankenfeld said.