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OHL limit on hockey fights grabs attention

D aniel Zweep, 6 feet 5, 229 pounds of solid muscle, is not the kind of player who backs down from a fight.

And in a recent game for the Owen Sound Attack of the junior Ontario Hockey League, all he wanted to do was knock the head off of Sault Ste. Marie defenseman Darnell Nurse.

But instead of throwing down, the left wing backed off.

Zweep already had four fights this season, and with only 10 allowed before harsh league suspensions kick in, the left wing was in conservation mode.

"I went into the corner and finished my check and he came at me," Zweep recalled. "I just said, 'I'm not going to fight you.' I was, like, I only have 10 fights. I have to pick and choose."

That is because the OHL this season made headlines by establishing rules it hopes will sharply reduce fighting, especially among players who have little to offer besides chucking the knuckles.

Players can fight 10 times without sanctions, but fights 11-15 will bring two-game suspensions.

For fights 16 and more, the team will be fined $1,000 in addition to the player suspension.

If a player is the instigator in any fight above 10, he will be suspended four games.

All that is in addition to in-game penalties.

Through Saturday, the league reported 156 fights compared to 217 at the same time last season, down 28.1 percent, a trend that, if it continues, surely will become part of the ongoing debate about fighting's role in the game.

It is enough the NHL will monitor how things progress, though Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who has served on several league rules and competition panels, said there is no impetus to follow the OHL's lead.

"I'm not necessarily a big proponent of fighting, but I don't think it's a real issue in the sport right now," Yzerman said. "I think everyone is pretty comfortable with the way the rules are, but we'll see how it develops."

• • •

Several factors went into the crackdown.

The game has changed. The NHL's instigator rule has helped make the old-time goon obsolete. And the increased speed of the game means players are judged more on skill and smarts, things which the developmental junior leagues, for ages 15-20, must reinforce. Reducing potential for head trauma also was a concern.

Then there is this:

"When you talk about fighting, I don't think our game needs it to sell," OHL commissioner Dave Branch told Mike Farwell of Canada's Sportsnet radio. "I don't think our players want it at the end of the day. There's a handful of players who feel that's the only way they can compete. That's not where we want to be."

But fighting is a tricky subject in hockey, which still thrives with story lines built on physical intimidation, payback and got-your-back camaraderie.

As Windsor right wing Ty Bilcke said, "The emotion of the game comes into it and everybody gets all hyped up at times and things happen. I'm here to get in on the forecheck and crash and bang, but I'm here to look after my teammates, too."

And no matter how much the game has changed, Saginaw coach Greg Gilbert said, that always will have its place.

"Obviously, I disagree with the staged fights, when guys are talking about it before the faceoff," said Gilbert, who played 15 NHL seasons. "But hockey is a game of passion. What it does now is protects the cheap-shot artists and all the players who do the dirty stuff because there is no repercussion. The guy who stands up for a teammate or stands up for himself because he is cheap-shotted or something thinks twice about doing it."

There also is concern players with 10 fights will be goaded into an 11th, which would trigger a suspension. To address that, the OHL will not count a fight against a player if his opponent is the instigator as determined by the on-ice officials.

"There will always be fighting," Branch told the Boston Globe. "It's how you address it."

• • •

The OHL last season had 25 players with at least 11 fights, according to hockeyfights.com, led by Bilcke, whose 37 were 14 more than any other.

But the 6-2, 208-pounder said the fighting rules are an opportunity more than a restriction.

"It gives me a chance to prove to people I'm a hockey player, No. 1, and not just a fighter," he said.

So during a summer in which he healed from a broken leg sustained at the end of last season, Bilcke worked on his skating and his hands and lost 10 pounds.

"I've come a long way," he said. "But I still play my game. I chip pucks to the net. I get deep. I finish my checks."

And he still fights, six times so far, tied for the league lead through Monday but on pace for only 19.

"You just can't go running around," Bilcke said. "At the same time, we're not letting guys take liberties on anybody with a dirty hit or anything."

So, one must pick his battles, maybe give a face wash instead of a punch, Bilcke said. "Or maybe it comes to a point in a game I take a number and hit him with a good, clean check and take care of it that way."

Wild and former Lightning tough guy Zenon Konopka likes the OHL's new rules.

It cuts the potential for head trauma and other injuries, he said, especially in a league in which a five-year disparity in player ages can sometimes cause fights to be mismatches.

That rarely happens in the NHL, which is a reason Konopka, with 102 fights in seven NHL seasons, does not favor the rule for professionals.

As for OHL players, "It's all about being calculating and making sure you fight for the right reasons," Konopka said. "If someone drags a leg or there's a head shot, you better make sure you have one of your 10 fights left to take care of business."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

OHL limit on hockey fights grabs attention 11/20/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 2:10am]
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