Junior hockey has been able to do in 10 years what I thought it would take a generation to do: change the culture around fighting in hockey.
At least at the junior level.
When the Guelph Storm’s Eric Uba dropped the gloves with Sault Ste. Marie’s Rabert Calisti two weeks ago, the first reaction for many in the rink was “a fight?”
It was the first and only fight in 10 games this season. Nine in total last season. A far cry from the 49 fights Storm players had in 2015-2016 and a far cry from the 20, 30 and sometimes 40 fights individuals would total in one year.
The league started imposing new rules aimed at reducing fighting in 2010, eliminating staged fights off the drop of the puck. Then came suspensions after 10 fights in 2015, followed by suspensions after three fights in 2016.
It has changed the way the game is approached, the way young players are developed and who plays in the league.
Tough has been redefined.
No one makes a team any more just because they can fight or because people are intimidated by their physical presence.
Strong, physical play is as important as ever, but what has disappeared is that physical intimidation or trying to control momentum within a game by means of violence.
Winning battles in the corners, cycling the puck and maintaining position around the goal crease is as important as ever, but scaring the hell out of younger, smaller, skilled players is not.
It wasn’t just new rules that changed things, it is much broader than that.
New medical knowledge, the work of journalists, the advocacy of former NHL tough guys like Dan Carcillo and the tragic deaths of former fighters like Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Steve Montardor have all contributed to the cultural shift.
Players still talk the talk, they just don’t walk it.
A feisty junior game will still see lots of jawing, lots of ‘ya’ wanna’ go?’s and ‘you and me, next shift’s. But by and large it is hollow bravado.
The sky didn’t fall in. Cheap shots and stickwork did not take blossom in the wake of people ‘not being kept honest.’ Players don't run around like idiots doing stupid things because they won't have to answer for it.
The game changed, it evolved. The approach of fans, while perhaps a step behind for some, is doing the same.