The American Hockey League announced at their 2016 Board of Governor’s meeting several changes to fighting that sparked outrage by many in the hockey community with only small dosages of praise from others. In short, the rule changes banned fighting after the drop of the puck (player awarded a game misconduct) and limited the amount of fights a player could have per season to 10 (or face a one game suspension, with additional games tacked on up to 13 fights). Wisely, the AHL elected to add that when the opposing player received an “instigating” penalty, the fight would not count towards the victimized player’s total count. The basis of these rule changes appears to have been to increase player safety while allowing for a greater development of player skill compared to sitting in the penalty box. The league cracked down on fighting with the addition of a rule in 2014 that created the automatic game misconduct after 2 fights in a game. The previously mentioned rule changes were met with outrage by numerous fans via social media; some claiming that the new rules would take the fun out of hockey while others expressed strong emotions that the changes would cause a decline in attendance. These claims proved to be unfounded, especially here in the San Diego market where attendance figures did the impossible by increasing in their second season.
The changes were made just before the release of the sensational documentary “Ice Guardians” which featured many of the games top enforcers: some retired looking back on their careers while others were active veterans including San Diego’s own Brian McGrattan (7 fights last season with San Diego). The stars featured in the film discussed their opinions about the importance of fighting in hockey and viewers of the film are left with substantial evidence to explain the necessity of fighting and the enforcer role in hockey. Flash forward through the season marked by the new fighting rules and I contend that the rules have surprised the fans in that there is zero amount of change seen of on ice hostility and competitiveness. Under the new rules, the crowd still has and will always have the moments of raucous cheering and applause on their feet while two men go toe to toe on a sheet of ice. Undeniable positivity came out of the new rule changes.
The rule changes spawned as a result of widespread fighting in the AHL, and despite the new limitations, the AHL still features more fights than the NHL per season. The AHL had a much higher fighting frequency before the rule change as Ken Campbell of “The Hockey News” pointed out in July. He found that there were 0.62 fights a game in the minors compared to the NHL’s 0.28 per game. According to HockeyFights.com, this season the NHL featured a slight increase to 0.30 fights per game (372 this season) while the AHL numbers decreased to 0.45 fights per game (504 total fights). In addition, only 3 teams total fight counts rose this season: San Jose’s stepped up from 36 to 37, Toronto’s jumped from 27 to 32, and Texas’ count skyrocketed after their “peaceful” season last year, moving from 16 to 35 fights. The teams involved in the most fights this season came from the North Division as the Albany Devils and the Syracuse Crunch both had 47 fighting penalties. The least came from Utica and Bakersfield with 19 total each. For what it’s worth, the median of all 30 teams was 34.5 fights on the season compared to last season’s draw of 46 each. Perhaps more significant is the fact that 20 of 30 teams fight count went down by double digits with the largest such decrease coming from the Binghamton Senators whose number deceased from 71 to 40 this season. To put my viewpoint into perspective, San Diego’s total dropped 10 spots from 48 to 38 during the regular season.
What is remarkable is that only two players were suspended for reaching the 10-fight rule this season: Ross Johnston (led league with 11 fights, one off an instigation) of the Sound Tigers and Michael Latta of the Rockford Icehogs. To “add insult to suspension,” Latta received his suspension during the last game of Rockford’s season and thus will serve his suspension the next time he is on an AHL roster. Last season the AHL’s top fighter had 20 fights and would have been suspended for an absurd amount of games. In addition, a total of 20 players last season would have been suspended (most for multiple games) with the new rules including San Diego’s Stu Bickel. What we have seen here in San Diego is a greater dispersal of fights. Bickel missed a large portion of the season with an injury but when he returned in the later parts of the season he stepped up and began rising the ranks of AHL fighters to the extent that he ended the season as the leagues leader in PIMPG. In the time of Bickel’s absence, Scott Sabourin stepped up in the lead enforcer role and filled Stu’s shoes, finishing the season at nine fights.
The numbers presented above are going to be pleasing to the board and perhaps we have seen the end of rule changes for fighting in the AHL; something that is great for the fans as the amount of fighting is ultimately not limited when it comes down to team play. Perhaps even better news to the fans, I’d pitch in my argument that the AHL sees a greater influx of fighting because teams play the same team repetitively. The Gulls faced Tucson and Ontario this season 12 times a piece and thus a lot of bad blood is spilled out between teams that consistently faceoff against one another. If the league wants to further make their numbers decline when it comes to fights, a probable solution is in the expansion of the schedule to include a greater variety of opponents via inter-division or inter-conference play. In my opinion the rule changes are great: there is to a certain extent a level of strategery added to the game in allowing each enforcer to only have 10 fights as coaches can utilize their brawlers only a certain amount of times. Nine players in the league stopped at 9 fights this season… a number that only makes perfect sense as the “enforcers” serve a much larger team role than fighting alone as “Ice Gaurdians” points out. The loss of a Stu Bickel or Scott Sabourin on the ice for San Diego has shown a huge impact this season and even if the consequence was only one game, the suspension ultimately is avoided. One other potential benefit that has spawned with the rule change is that it allows for a new wave of enforcers to rise. Rather than bringing in 2 or 3 enforcers as the Gulls did last season; fresh, young, and talented fighters can rise in a system where fights need to be dispersed on a team more evenly.
The fighting rule changes that were met with anger from the fan perspective have largely improved the American Hockey League, at least in their first season of enactment. Only further time will tell if the rule changes truly are as promising as they seem to have been in year one. The Calder Cup Playoffs kick off tomorrow and if one thing holds true about playoff hockey year after year: rivalries will continue to develop as series’ progress day to day as each of the 16 teams try to advance in their quest for the Calder Cup. In the midst of all the fast-paced action that is to come in the next month across the AHL, the everyday fan can still expect to see ice guardians in action.
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