It's a tradition as old as hockey itself.
But a new rule endorsed by the CJHL, and adopted by the MJHL, could come close to eliminating it from the game.
The MJHL announced Friday the league will be adopting a “one-fight” rule. The announcement followed a vote by the CJHL board of directors on Wednesday that was “overwhelmingly” in favour of giving an automatic game misconduct for fighting as a new national minimum discipline.
For Neepawa Natives fans, that means that next year, if a player fights, they will be ejected for the remainder of the game.
And while it may appear it's the league's way of ending all hockey fights in the league, MJHL commissioner Kim Davis has said that's not the goal of the new rule.
“I wouldn't say it's about...eliminating fighting,” Davis told The Neepawa Press Friday. “It's about continuing an effort on our part, and the part of other leagues in the country, to diminish violence in the game.”
The commissioner added that the goal of the new rule is to make the league more skill-based.
“Our league's main objective is to develop the skill of young players and provide entertainment and excitement for our fan,” Davis noted. “Fans love great passes and great skill.”
Currently, the MJHL employs a “two-fight rule” where players are ejected after the second fight in the same game. A related rule in the MJHL sees players face a one-game suspension, and teams a substantial fine, when a player exceeds their fifth fight in a season.
However, many hockey fans and sport fundamentalists across the country – and around Neepawa – are questioning why the CJHL and, by extension, the MJHL, are aiming to further decrease the amount of fighting in Junior 'A' hockey. Fighting is a tradition as old as modern hockey itself, with even the first indoor ice hockey game played March 3, 1876 at McGill University featuring its fair share of fistacuffs.
Neepawa Natives head coach Dwayne Kirkup is among those hockey enthusiasts disappointed with seeing the new rule come into effect.
“I don't like it,” Kirkup said. “I don't know why we make changes in the game, just to make changes in the game.”
The coach, like several analysts around the hockey world, is also concerned the “one-fight rule” will counteract its own goal, and actually create more injuries or underhanded violence in the league, as players won't have to worry about retribution for their actions.
“I think it's going to change the dynamics of the game in a way that I don't think is sending us in the right direction. I think it's going to make for more stickwork on players, and more head checks, and make it more dangerous for our players,” Kirkup explained.
Having an 'enforcer' on the team has long been a way for teams to protect their star players. Even Wayne Gretzky had the likes of Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley (admittedly not the best example with his hockey history in mind) waiting in the wings for players who threw cheap shots “The Great One's” way.
In Neepawa, the Natives brought in the likes of 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman Justin Coachman at the beginning of this season to help keep opponents “honest”.
And while Coachman is a well-rounded player – often featured on the team's starting line, penalty kill and powerplay – his presence alone has been noticeable in keeping Natives players protected this year – even with a five-fight limit, opponents second-think hits thrown and post-whistle scrums instigated during the game.
“Coachman doesn't go looking for it, but I say with him in the lineup everyone else is 10 pounds heavier and two inches taller,” Kirkup explained of the philosophy. “He's a steadying influence on the backline.”
The 20-year-old Coachman will have graduated the team by the time the one-fight rule is implemented next season but, regardless of the new punishments, Natives fans should expect to see a similar player on the roster next season and no changes in the way the Neepawa Junior 'A' club approaches its games.
“I still think we need that presence in the lineup. It's also about team toughness, it doesn't come down to one guy,” Kirkup concluded, adding, “I won't change my approach, I'll still teach players to be hard on the puck and aggressive.”