After a penalty-marred affair at the Icehouse on Sunday between the Melbourne Ice and Sydney Ice Dogs, and a heated Melbourne derby two weeks prior, things in the AIHL have become a little physical lately.

The topic of fighting in the AIHL has again been discussed with vigour. There have already been a myriad of opinions expressed about this issue ad nausea, usually unfortunately and erroneously represented as a polarity: one side vehemently against whilst another side is vehemently for. The arguments on both sides generally remain the same.

In the greater context of the AIHL, there are obviously several factors around this topic which must be considered.

“I don’t wanna go”

Among the anti-fighting crowd, the main battle cry is that it will deter families and children from participating in and spectating the game. It would deter new fans or attract the wrong type of fan to the sport and also send the wrong message to young children playing the sport.

AIHL fight 2

I do not believe that this is such a clear-cut argument for a number of reasons. A lot of this demographic are already exposed to the realities of the sport through watching the NHL, the most marketed league in Australia. This does not justify the argument in itself but it would be hard to argue that this demographic would be unaware or unaccepting of this aspect of the game. For the casual or unassuming fan this may be an issue but the reality also remains is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.

This also does not necessarily mean that the potential for fighting in the AIHL is applicable or influential to local or state associations, or that these bodies will have to change their rules to accommodate the AIHL. Quite the contrary. This is the same in Hockey Canada and USA Hockey where fighting is not allowed at all until Junior Hockey (U/18), where players have the potential to go professional and are often already draftees of an NHL team. Fighting can still be outlawed at the local levels as normal but should players choose to go to the highest level of competition in Australia they can then make a conscious decision on it.

Furthermore, the IIHF rule book is not as bullet-proof as some may think when it comes to deterring fighting. Billy Cliff vs Brad Young, Alex Hall vs David Manning, and Michael Schlamp vs Chris Frank last year (although a hug contest in the end, no disrespect boys) are all recent examples of AIHL players willing to drop the mitts, match penalty or not. An end of season game between the Canberra Knights and the Melbourne Mustangs in 2011 featured four bouts in a supposedly meaningless game. The memorable bench clearing brawl at the IIHF U/20 World Championships four years ago between Australia and Romania is another example of the rule book’s non-Kevlar properties.

Finally, in a professional sense, the introduction of the instigator rule in the NHL some years ago has done little, if anything, to deter fights from occurring and has arguably emboldened less talented players to engage in dirty play and jeopardise careers.

One completely acknowledges that “staged fights”, or fights that occur with no meaningful purpose, serve detriment to the game and is often where the negative perception of the sport may come into play. This type of fight would be hard to justify and would arguably be rare in the AIHL. Most teams do not have the luxury of paying a Brian McGrattan or Tom Sestito type player several hundred thousand dollars a year to risk his knuckles and skull. Nor can they afford to give up a roster spot to act purely as pugilists without contributing to the team.

Unfortunately, the public perception of the sport amongst non-hockey fans is often that of “fighting plus scoring goals.”

Including fighting in the AIHL is a good way to reach out to that non-hockey fan base who may not be inclined or aware of what the rest of the game has to offer. Attendance in anticipation of a potential scrap, which may or may not occur, would expose this demographic to everything else incredible about this sport. And they may end up staying, fight or no fight.

One also has to consider that the players in the league currently are not professional and have to go to work on Monday. A broken hand or a split lip might not be advantageous to one’s full time vocation. Believe it or not, hockey is a dangerous sport even without contact, let alone fighting. A slapshot to the laces, an accidental high stick to the face or a skate blade cut (Youtube Clint Malarchuk if you can stomach it) are just as, if not more so injurious and dangerous than a hard check or a punch in the face. As is getting in your car afterwards and driving home from the rink.

Players are making a conscious choice to participate in a contact sport. The registration waiver that is signed by all players before the beginning of the season, like all other sports, explicitly states that the league/club shall not be held liable for any physical injury or illness resulting from participation in the sport. There has to be some responsibility on the player’s behalf, not just on the league to protect itself should fighting be included.

It would also be constructive to survey what the players think as they are the ones chucking knuckle. An NHLPA poll in 2011 also showed overwhelming support amongst players for keeping fighting in the NHL. My own anecdotal experience shows strong support in the AIHL although this would need much further investigation.

AIHL fight

“Let’s go!”

In the overall context of a game that has become emotional, passionate or just downright chippy, the anticipation of a good old fashioned dust-up between two willing combatants more often than not generates a decibel count as loud a game winning goal. It can also bring to life even the stalest of encounters. It can further add to the experience and overall theatre of the game from a spectating point of view.

Fighting can also serve to police the game and afford protection for star players from the less talented but physically inclined. Short, swift retribution for a cheap shot is often a better deterrent than a short stay in the penalty box or a few games on the sidelines, particularly if you’ve managed to injure a star player. Referees being human (some may erroneously claim otherwise) cannot protect players 100% of the time. This is also a factor in a league which currently operates a three man system and has limited video review capabilities for tribunal worthy incidents, leaving opportunities for some players to get away with questionable and dangerous play.

If the league decides to allow fighting then obviously measures have to be taken to ensure that it is an extra facet of the game, not the main event or that it degenerates into a goon league – a no-win situation for everybody.

An interesting example to note is that of the Ontario Hockey League, which in 2012 introduced new rules governing fighting that allows its players a maximum of 10 fights per season (bear in mind they play 70 games a year). After the tenth fight and every fight thereafter, suspensions automatically apply. Whilst not foolproof, this is a pertinent and interesting example of meeting people halfway – it eliminates staged fights but also retains the traditional element of the game. Should the AIHL consider adopting fighting in the future, then adoption of this model would perhaps be the most relevant and effective. There also lies the issue of accreditation of officials if the rule book is to be changed to allow this to occur as a major penalty as opposed to an automatic match penalty.

As the league continues to expand and draw closer to the benchmark of professionalism, issues such as fighting will continue to be at the forefront of discussion, no matter what side of the argument you are on. At the end of the day, the AIHL is the “entertainment league” and is a separate context from national team representation in IIHF tournaments.

This writer is not an advocate of violence or unnecessary roughness by any standard of the imagination. This article is purely providing one perspective amongst many on the ever controversial topic of fighting in hockey. Contact sports will always provide an increased potential for escalation of physical conflict where human emotion overrides adherence to rules. It is also an interesting perspective to note that MMA (which I am a fan of) and Boxing are considered legitimate sports, whilst fighting in hockey is frowned upon by many. Where does the line blur?

In the context of the AIHL, it is the two cents of this writer that you have to meet halfway. It cannot be a free-for-all, or a none-for-all.