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NHLers weigh in on QMJHL fighting debate: 'The game's changing'

A veteran of nearly 130 career fights, Kyle Clifford can see a day when dropping the gloves in the NHL has serious repercussions beyond a five-minute penalty. Just not any time soon.

A veteran of nearly 130 career fights, Kyle Clifford can see a day when dropping the gloves in the NHL has serious repercussions beyond a five-minute penalty.

Just not any time soon.

"It'd be a while before you see that," said the bruising Toronto Maple Leafs winger. "Eventually, I'm sure they'll go that way."

It could happen a lot sooner in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

One of Canada's three top-tier junior circuits, the QMJHL delayed a vote on the possibility of taking a harsher stance towards fighting at a meeting Thursday. But the league's member teams are expected to reconvene in August, with 12 of 18 clubs needing to approve any proposed rule change.

"Whether we ban fighting outright or simply impose stricter penalties for fighting, those were the elements that made our debate very nuanced," QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau told reporters Thursday in Dorval, Que. "This is not a debate we're taking lightly."

Canada's other two major junior leagues — the Western Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League — allow fighting, although the OHL added mandatory suspensions for reaching a certain threshold in 2016. 

A player who instigates a fight in the QMJHL in the final five minutes of regulation with one team leading by two goals or more currently receives an automatic one-game suspension. A player is also handed a one-game ban if he racks up more than three fights under the same conditions without the instigator penalty being assessed.

Leafs centre Frederik Gauthier, who played three seasons in the QMJHL, understands why the league might want to slam the door shut on fighting, especially considering the dangers of concussions and head injuries, and the varying size and maturity of junior players.

"There's not much fighting in that league these days," said the 24-year-old. "A guy can get a lot bigger between 16 and 20 years old. There's a big age gap. I'm assuming it's a safety thing."

OHL commissioner David Branch, who's held the job since the late 1970s, said there's nothing currently on the table with his league when it comes to a change in approach to fighting.

"We've taken some significant steps in the area of fighting with the view of working towards reducing it and seeing it potentially evolve to where it very rarely occurs," said Branch, who also served as Canadian Hockey League president from 1996 until September. "I don't believe you're ever going to have an outright prohibition on it, but it's a work in progress."

Branch said fighting is down roughly 45 per cent in the OHL since the implementation of a rule that sees a player suspended after his fourth altercation of the season.

"We're having one fight every three or four games, which is a far cry from what the numbers were," he said. "You're always looking at ways you can continue to provide the safest environment."

A spokesperson with the WHL said in an email it's not considering a ban on fighting. The CHL, an umbrella organization that oversees the country's top junior leagues, declined to comment because the QMJHL discussion is a regional matter.

Asked about the potential for harsher penalties or an outright ban on fighting in the QMJHL, Ottawa Senators winger Nick Paul said it still has a place in the game.

"If you don't have (fighting) then it gets real chippy and guys start using their stick," said the 24-year-old, who played three seasons in the OHL. "When guys do something really dirty, what are you going to get? Two minutes?

"When you know you have to answer the bell, guys think twice."

Development leagues outside Canada, like the NCAA in the United States, tend to have stricter penalties for fighting. The International Ice Hockey Federation has an automatic game misconduct, while a U.S. college player gets an early shower and is also forced to sit out his team's next game.

But Paul said the lack of fighting at lower levels could have unintended consequences.

"If you've never fought and then you come into the pros and there's fighting, it's completely different," he said. "If you've never been in a fight before it can be dangerous."

The NHL has so far avoided making changes in its approach to fighting. The league has instead managed to cut down on the fisticuffs by enforcing rules that promote speed and skill.

According to the league's official statistics, there were 1,284 fighting majors in 2010-11 compared to just 450 last season. Ten years ago, 37.8 per cent of games included at least one fight. In 2018-19, it occurred in just 15.3 per cent of contests, with similar projections for this season.

Long gone are the days of a designated tough guy who only sees a few minutes of action a night.

"The game's changing," said Clifford, who played three years in the OHL and is in his 10th professional campaign. "You look at even the NHL, there's a lot less fighting."

According to the website, the 29-year-old has fought 129 times in his career, with 81 coming in the NHL. Clifford dropped the gloves on 18 occasions as a rookie with the Los Angeles Kings in 2010-11 and hit double digits in two other campaigns, but has just four in 2019-20.

"It's their decision," Clifford said of whatever route the QMJHL takes. "Everyone that's in the NHL now that plays that style can play the game, too. They're solid fourth-line, third-line players and they contribute."

Traded to the Leafs earlier this month, Clifford said even though fighting is down — and could be out the door someday altogether — it doesn't detract from the raw emotion in the best league in the world.

"You see that come playoff time," he said. "There's rarely any fighting, but just that drive and competitive spirit is what makes the NHL such a great game.

"Now over the last seven or eight years we're adding a ton of skill and ton of speed."

— With files from Kelsey Patterson in Dorval, Que., and Lisa Wallace in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb 21, 2020.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press