Minor-league hockey is an ever-changing monster. Not only was there a new relocation to Tucson, Arizona, but there was a major overhaul of the rules to cut down on fighting in the American Hockey League. This has long been a divisive subject among the legions of hockey writers, fans, players, and team management, although the evidence suggests, if anything, fighting only has detrimental effects on all parties involved.
The AHL took a major step forward in the protection of its players and followed a precedent set out by the OHL in 2014 to drop the number of fights, especially of the staged variety.
Now, under Rules 46 and 23 of the AHL rulebook, there are stricter punishments for engaging in too many incidents, engaging in staged fights at puck drop, and accruing too many fighting majors over the course of a season.
Rule 46 ("Fighting")/Rule 23("Game Misconducts")
Players who enter into a fight prior to, at, or immediately following the drop of the puck for a faceoff will be assessed an automatic game misconduct in addition to other penalties assessed.
This is a major step forward, as staged fights have been shown to serve no purpose in the modern game and can bring an action-packed game to a screeching halt while two players trade punches. Not to mention it also phases out players who are sent out on the ice with the only purpose being to instigate a fight for momentum or retribution.
During the regular season, any play who incurs his 10th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for one game. For each subsequent fighting major up to 13, the player shall also be suspended for one game.
During the regular season, any player who incurs his 14th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for two games. For each subsequent fighting major, the player shall also be suspended for two games.
These rule changes mirror the OHL's, which were instituted before the 2014 season and have already seen an immediate result. The season before the rule changes were implemented, there were 556 total OHL fights. In 2014-2015 there were 407, and this past season just 362 total fights. That's a major dropoff, and it's hard to not believe the looming threat of a suspension for accruing too many fighting majors plays a major role in that.
With these new rules in place it's likely we will see a sharp decline in the number of fighting majors in the AHL over the next few seasons. Had these rules been in place last year there would have been 22 total fighting-related suspensions in the AHL, with the league leader, Michael Liambas, serving 18 total games in suspensions for his 20 fights.
It's clear that the development leagues are moving away from the traditional on-ice pugilism in favour of player safety and skill. The enforcer role has been all but eliminated at the NHL level, as the modern game is based on speed and skill over the ability to throw punches.
With these rules applied in the AHL and OHL there are fewer and fewer "goon" type players occupying roster spots in the leagues. The AHL in particular has been a safe haven for long-time enforcers: players like Brian McGrattan, Tom Sestito and Zack Stortini have found regular playing time on their respective teams for many seasons after their NHL careers came to an end.
With these harsher penalties in place, coaches have to decide if they want to play an unskilled pugilist or a younger skilled prospect, and many more will favour skill under the new guidelines.
While the NHL will never be able to garner support to outright ban fighting, these actions by other leagues are filtering out the fighters and goon type players. It's slowly making the game a safer place, and with the increased attention on concussions, it's a welcome change for many fans.