The issue of fighting in hockey has taken a number of twists and turns over the years, but one thing is certain: all the developments are carrying the sport to a place where bare-knuckle fisticuffs play a smaller and smaller role.
There are no longer any massive beasts of men willingly incurring brain damage to serve as an enforcer. There is no justification for fighting, no tradeoff of financial riches for a short time in the spotlight, and no excuse for players to beat each other up with their hands rather than trying to score more goals than their opponents. The way forward is clear – there can still be fights, as there are in virtually every sport, but there is no more tolerance for fighting as a method by which to try and win games.
This is something to keep in mind when you hear news such as this breaking information about full face shields being mandated for players in Junior A hockey leagues. As of the 2020-21 campaign, full face shields were made mandatory below the Junior A level, but this new step is another step toward making the game safer.
“This past June, the 13 members (of Hockey Canada’s board) approved a playing rule change extending full facial protection under our playing rules to include Junior A,” a Hockey Canada spokesperson told CBC.ca at the end of October, noting the new rule will be in place by mid-December. It affects organizations including the Canadian Junior Hockey League, which governs leagues such as the Alberta Junior League and Saskatchewan Junior League. And, predictably, there was pushback from some involved with the game at those levels.
“I think you’re going to lose some fans,” said Kevin Kaminski, former NHLer and current head coach of the Saskatchewan Junior League’s La Ronge Ice Wolves. “I know the fighting is very limited now, but I think the fans still love a good tilt here and there…There’s no more consequences if someone does a bad hit…No one stands up anymore…with a visor or with the full face (shield) on, what are you gonna do, take your gloves off and wreck your hands?”
Once again, the rhetoric surrounding fighting in the game is easily exposed as empty. To use Kaminski’s example, he’s apparently more worried about a player wrecking their hands than he is about them wrecking their brains by being pounded repeatedly. And as we’ve said dozens of times, the consequences for a “bad” hit should come from a league’s gatekeepers, by fines and/or suspensions. Simply put, if you break rules or take liberties with an opponent, the onus is on on-ice and off-ice officials to act so that you never take those liberties again.
We have to remember that full face shields aren’t mandatory at hockey’s major junior and professional levels, but they are mandatory at the collegiate levels in North America, as well as at all amateur levels. Full face shields may be a bridge too far at the NHL and AHL levels, but let’s not forget the sky-is-falling outcry that came when visors were mandated at all levels, and there was no catastrophe or surge in underhanded play. The athletes adapted, and guess what? The number of serious eye injuries plummeted, and the game became safer. That is (and should be) the ultimate goal of hockey’s governing bodies – if hockey is going to be the sport of choice for young people to invest their time, money and emotion in, it needs to do everything possible to keep them healthy and in the same condition they arrived in when they signed up to play.
If full face shields help curb those remaining stupid fights, so be it. Hockey is a beautiful sport that doesn’t need any sideshows to appeal to an ever-shrinking group of people who believe they’re owed somebody’s blood, teeth and brain matter when they purchase a ticket.
Nobody walks back to the ticket window to demand a refund if a game doesn’t have any fights in it. Any number of fans the sport loses because fighting is gone will almost assuredly be replaced by more fans who appreciate a safer game.
Decades from now, people will look back at this transitional era of hockey and wonder why the sport was OK with brain-damaged athletes just to satiate the bloodthirst of a subgroup of fans and players. For most of us now, fighting in hockey makes no sense, and as the game evolves, its proponents will slowly, but surely, disappear into the yellowed pages of history. This latest face shield news is just a harbinger of the safety-minded measures to come.