Rule changes drive fighting down 20 percent in AHL
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) —
Early in his minor league hockey career, enforcer Joel Rechlicz skimmed the opposing roster before a game to see who he would have to fight that night.
"You knew there was two or three heavyweights on the team, and you knew something might happen," Rechlicz said. "Now it's not really like that."
Rechlicz is part of a dying breed of fighters in the American Hockey League, a place that used to be a haven for rough stuff and fisticuffs, and home to characters like Frank "The Animal" Bialowas who look like they're right out of "Slap Shot."
Just as the NHL has seen a sharp drop in fighting along with the increase of speed and skill players, the AHL has made a concerted effort to cut down on brawling. It is seeing significant progress.
After making two fights in a game an automatic ejection beginning in 2014-15, the AHL this year implemented new rules to eject players for staged fights off faceoffs and to suspend players when they reach 10 fights in a season. President and CEO David Andrews said fighting is down 20 percent as a result, and the rule change is having its desired effect of curbing grudge matches between the same players.
"If you look at the changes that we made, they were intended to be a drag on players who primarily fought," Andrews said at All-Star festivities this past week. "They weren't intended to necessarily eliminate fighting in our league. If you look at our statistics, they have achieved what we set out to achieve, which is to hopefully reduce, eliminate staged fights, and to make it less likely that a player would be playing in our league for essentially the sole purpose of being a fighter."
The AHL has been a test market for NHL rules changes for years, from the wildly successful 3-on-3 overtime to hybrid icing. Fighting is another area the NHL is watching closely.
Last season, Michael Liambas led the AHL with 20 fights, according to HockeyFights.com, and 22 players had 10 or more. More than halfway through the 2016-17 season, Michael Latta and Ben Thomson have the most fights with seven apiece.
Rechlicz has played only 10 games this season for the Bakersfield Condors and fought twice, down from his career-high 17 in 2011-12. He's not a believer in the 10-fight limit because he thinks some players will abuse it and that it's affecting how physical players do their job.
"Guys are scared, too," Rechlicz said. "With that rule and stuff, they don't want to take themselves out of action. There are guys like (Latta), they play every game and they're effective players and they don't want to go overboard because they're valuable to their team and they don't want to risk a suspension."
That's part of the AHL's intent. When fighting sharply declined in the NHL a few years ago, teams began putting heavyweight enforcers like Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, Brian McGrattan and Kevin Westgarth on waivers and sending them to the minors because they were no longer valuable as on-ice policemen.
Andrews said fighting in the AHL was double that of the NHL and that a handful of players were engaging in over 20 percent of fights. The AHL has successfully trimmed so-called "staged" fights that happen at the drop of the puck for no real reason by 75 percent and prioritized skill just like the NHL has.
Former Hershey Bears general manager Doug Yingst said he used to sign at least one enforcer each season. Not anymore.
"You want that tough player that can fight, but he's got to be able to play," Yingst said. "When you had the tough guys before, they weren't good players. That's all but removed now."
Yingst's successor and fellow AHL Hall of Famer Bryan Helmer said players "have to have the whole package to stick around now," no matter the level of hockey. Like most hockey people, he considers fighting to be part of the game but acknowledges that rule changes are pushing out the fighters who can't score, skate or defend.
Andrews said the most recent changes were approved unanimously by the AHL's board, which includes NHL assistant GMs.
"There's a lot of old-school guys involved on our board and representing NHL teams as well, and they all felt it was the right thing for a development league to more closely mirror what's happening in the NHL," Andrews said. "As you prepare your players, they shouldn't have to face other factors that they aren't going to face in the NHL. I think it's working."
Rechlicz respectfully disagrees. Making the same point as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that fighting can be a cooling mechanism at times when tensions run high, he said "no one wants hockey to be a circus on ice" but doesn't think an artificial limit is effective.
"The days of guys fighting 30 times a year is definitely over," Rechlicz said. "I feel like it's still a very effective tool to have in the game, especially now in the American League when you got all these young prospects that are extremely important to these NHL teams. You need to have somebody to protect these guys."