The United States Hockey League took significant strides in the area of player safety and injury prevention last week with the announcement of a pilot program that commissioner Skip Prince believes is a critical step in the right direction.
"It actually started a year-and-a-half ago when we began hearing about all the anti-fighting initiatives and people were saying that fighting was the cause of so many injuries," Prince told NHL.com. "We weren't defensive about it, but I went back and we did exhaustive research with our trainers to try and figure out what was going on."
What Prince discovered was that fighting wasn't the sole root of the problem -- so rather than focus only on what was politically thought to be the reason, Prince opted to "step back and try to figure out what was wrong and what could be fixed without taking the aggressiveness out of the game.
OHL cracks down on fighting
Ontario Hockey League Commissioner David Branch last week announced the league would begin targeting "needless" fighting.
Branch called for a minimum two-game suspension every time a player exceeded a limit of 10 fighting majors in a season. The rule is unprecedented in the Canadian Hockey League.
"There are those who see no need for [fighting] in our game," Branch said on a conference call with reporters on Sept. 19. "We also recognize that as you move forward with any rule adjustment, you have to mindful of, 'OK, if you remove this, what happens there?' "
Basically, the OHL's new rules target players who engage in more than 10 fights in a single season. Following the 10th fight, the offender will face a two-game suspension for each additional fighting major. After the offender's 16th fight, teams also will be fined $1,000.
If a player is judged to be the instigator in any of the fights above the 10-game limit, that player would be given an automatic four-game suspension in addition to other penalties assessed. The rule also specifies that if the opposing player receives an instigator penalty, the fighting major is not included in the player's total number of fights.
When asked how he determined the 10-game limit, Branch admitted that "there was some discussion of lowering it, but we thought let's start it here. This is an evolutionary process, so let's see where this takes us."
Branch also noted that "92 percent of [OHL] players are involved in less than 10 fights [in a season]. Sixty-six percent of our players are involved in less than two fights in a given season."
The OHL had 31 players involved in 10 or more fighting majors last season. Leading the way were Ty Bilcke (37 fighting majors) of the Windsor Spitfires, Johnny McGuire (23) of the Erie Otters and Derek Mathers (22) of the Peterborough Petes.
Some may claim the new rule was instituted with an eye toward limiting concussions, but that wasn't the case.
"This rule was not solely designed to deal with the concern about concussions," Branch said. "In fact, our statistics show us that fighting is about third or fourth of factors that cause concussions. But it is there, it is a positive in the area of head injuries. That whole issue of head injuries and concussion is No. 1 on our agenda moving forward. We just hope that all leagues, all levels would share the mutual discussion."-- Mike G. Morreale
"Could we cut down on fighting in ways that could focus on what we were calling the dumb and dangerous play?" he continued. "What we found out was that there were a number of minor penalties that were also part of the problem, and that we needed to address."
So the USHL, in consultation with the NHL, received the cooperation of the league's 15 owners, together with USA Hockey, to reveal a groundbreaking initiative just prior to the start of its annual Fall Classic in Sioux City, Iowa, on Sept. 19.
"It just became clear that if we wanted to do this right, we were going to have to do it more comprehensively than we had expected or anticipated, but I think it's an effort that's going to bear out," Prince said. "We want to accumulate a picture to learn where injuries are occurring on the ice, what part in the season and where on the player … how many games has that player played in a row? Was there a height disadvantage for the player getting hit?"
The five primary elements of the USHL initiative include:
* New regulations governing dangerous play.
* Monitoring, review, early intervention and supplementary discipline by the commissioner's office.
* Conferencing among the league's hockey ops, competition committee, coaches, officials and players on how to improve play.
* A focus on improving equipment.
* Devising a more consistent way of tracking injuries.
"I wish we could prioritize them so we can attend to them one at a time, but it seemed to us that the minute we got involved and start imposing regulations and review of enforcement, you need to begin reviewing them," Prince said. "If you're enforcing new equipment, you better be aware of what consequences those have, positive or negative, from an injury standpoint."
Prince admitted that the one unique area in the initiative is that team captains and players have all been informed of their role in player safety.
"They've got a responsibility to others as well as themselves," Prince said. "It's easy to tell the 10-year-old player not to fight, dress them up like tanks, send them out on the ice, and very little bad happens. But if we can teach that and get through to these players to the point where they're playing more of a responsible game despite their size and strength nowadays, that's a huge step."
One interesting advancement is the fact all USHL players will be given the opportunity to wear an approved three-quarter face shield instead of the full cage in order to provide a better visual field. The NCAA is also pursuing a similar initiative so that collegiate players will be able to use the protective shield in future seasons.
"In our research, we're working with CCM on padding to keep not just the guys doing the hitting, but those getting hit, protected," Prince said. "The three-quarter visor will improve the field of vision and, perhaps, change the overall mindset in an aggressive player."
Prince was obviously referring to the fact a player wearing a full protective cage may be more inclined to take an unnecessary run at an opposing player than a player donning a three-quarter shield.
Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's Senior Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations disciplinarian, was delighted to see the USHL's stance on improving player safety.
"The National Hockey League's Department of Player Safety applauds the USHL for taking a proactive approach to player safety that focuses on changing on-ice behavior," Shanahan said. "Instilling the proper approach to the game at the junior level is critical both to improving player safety and developing players who someday will become effective NHL players."
Prince hopes the initiative makes a difference and doesn't believe the league will deviate from any portion of the rules following its pilot season.
"We wouldn't have started this if we thought it was just a one-year trial," Prince said. "It's expensive, time-consuming and will involve a lot of pressure on a lot of people … there's never been so much pressure on the officials and so much attention given to these penalties as there are now.
"We hope it becomes permanent, but we also know it's a project that takes a lot of attention across the board. What we'll have to show is we've been effective in reducing injuries through review and discipline."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale