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Quebec Government Has Unique Chance to KO Fighting in Jr. Hockey

Lawmakers in Quebec have been asked to give the QMJHL $20 million in pandemic relief, but wants the league to reduce fighting. That's not enough. A government should want to see fighting eliminated. Full stop.

So if we have this straight, the Quebec League has the opportunity to receive $20 million from the provincial government and all it has to do in return is take steps to curb the number of times teenagers get punched in the face. As far as corporate welfare goes, that’s a win for the home team.

Like all its other provincial counterparts, the Government of Quebec is more than willing to help junior hockey operators line their pockets. Early in 2020, it was persuaded by the QMJHL to change its own employment standards laws to classify players as ‘student athletes’ rather than employees. That alone represents savings in the millions of dollars. You’d think in the middle of a global pandemic, a government would have better things to do with $20 million than help prop up for-profit enterprises – granted, some teams are community owned - that exploit teenagers, but hey, it ain’t my money.

But that’s exactly what Isabelle Charest, the Quebec junior minister for education, amateur sport and status of women, is prepared to do. QMJHL president Gilles Courteau last week approached the government for pandemic funding to cover costs in a season in which the league is expecting to play in empty buildings. It’s believed the league asked for $20 million, which would amount to $1.67 million for each of the league’s 12 Quebec-based teams. Charest told Courteau that the government is amenable, but only if the QMJHL does something to curb fighting.

Courteau proposed to the league’s board of governors that fighting majors increase to 15-minute penalties and that players with five fighting majors receive a one-game suspension. The league’s owners voted 10-8 in favor, but a major rule change needs at least 12 votes. There’s speculation that some of the teams did not know that the government funding was tied to the vote, so there’s a very good chance another vote will be held before long.

But it’s not near enough. Isabelle Charest and the Government of Quebec have a real chance to affect change here and they should take it. They are in a position of leverage and to see them squander it would be a huge opportunity missed. Charest, a former world-class speed skater, has made no secret of her opinion that there is too much fighting in junior hockey. Now is her chance to come as close as possible to eradicating it.

And Charest can do that by squeezing the QMJHL, by exploiting the obvious leverage she has in this situation and forcing those who run this league to do the right thing. The QMJHL, on the other hand, has a chance to essentially get fighting out of its league without having to face making the decision on its own. It’s a win for both sides.

But this can only be done if the Government of Quebec settles for nothing less than very stiff penalties for fighting that include automatic game misconducts and suspensions. One place to start would be a game misconduct for one fight, with a one-game suspension for fighting in the final 10 minutes of a game and an additional one-game for being identified as the instigator. Each fight after the first would be penalized by a game misconduct and a one-game suspension. And as they say in Quebec, voila. Fighting is basically eradicated from the game.

Despite what fighting apologists will tell you, this is neither a complex nor nuanced argument. It’s incredibly simple and straightforward. You either support having fisticuffs in your league or you don’t. And if you don’t, it’s really simple to get rid of it. You tell the players they can’t do it and they will listen.

And for those who insist that government has no place in sports, when a for-profit league asks you to ignore your own employment standards laws to its benefit and has its hand out for pandemic relief in the space of the same calendar year, well that changes the playing field. Charest and her government owe it to the hundreds of Quebec-born young men who play in the QMJHL and their families that she will do everything she can to protect their developing brains. For many of the former players who are debilitated by brain damage later in life, that head trauma often first took root in junior hockey, not in the NHL.

It’s not often a government is faced with an opportunity like this one. For the Government of Quebec to not press the issue and extract as much as possible from the QMJHL would be an abdication of responsibility. The worst thing that could happen is the league would refuse, which would allow legislators to use that money on people who need it a lot more.

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