All Hockey Is Not Created Equal
In discussing the controversial Mike Liambas hit that put Ben Fanelli of the Kitchener Rangers in hospital with a fractured skull, OHL commissioner David Branch reacted firmly to the suggestion that NHL executives didn't see anything wrong with the hit.
"This isn't the NHL," he said in an interview. "We are a different league."
Now whether you agree or disagree with Branch's decision to suspend Liambas of the Erie Otters for the rest of the season, or whether you see Branch as either an enlightened thinker or dangerous subversive — there are plenty of folks in both camps — his point is well-made and stretches beyond major junior hockey.
In this case, he was arguing that what goes in the NHL doesn't necessarily fit the needs of the OHL, as was the case when he mandated the use of neck guards and stopped the practice of players removing their helmets to fight in the wake of the Don Sanderson tragedy.
While some OHLers may go on to play in the NHL, not all do, and Branch made it clear that he believes there needs to be a greater safety component in junior hockey.
"We've worked hard to create a positive environment," he said. "Everyone knows the risks of playing hockey. We try to minimize the risks and tell our players we're not tolerating anything that goes beyond the boundaries of fair play."
Now, some might argue that having 16-year-olds playing in the same league as 20-year-olds is inherently dangerous. That said, U.S. college hockey and Canadian university hockey often have much older players skating against teenagers. Goodness, Matt Gilroy is a 25-year-old rookie with the New York Rangers who last year was playing in the NCAA.
But Branch's philosophy is interesting. Junior hockey isn't the NHL, so some different rules and standards should apply. This goes against the grain for those who would argue that the game is the game and must be played under the same conditions and rules from age 6 up to the NHL. They call themselves purists. They're usually the ones screaming obscenities at officials in novice and minor peewee.
It's why kids who can barely skate shoot on the same sized-net they use in the NHL. It's why it took so long to popularize the use of the lighter blue puck. Gotta use the same puck everywhere and for every age, right?
And it's why what happens in the NHL is mimicked everywhere else. Sometimes that's good. Go to a peewee or bantam game now and you'll see no hooking or holding. That's because the NHL did it first.
But Branch was essentially arguing that a violent body check that might make sense among professional males might not make sense for teenage boys playing junior hockey, and presumably, wouldn't be proper at all for younger ages.
Perhaps we need to get rid of the concept that what goes in the NHL should apply everywhere in the game and instead embrace the philosophy that while younger players may aspire to playing pro hockey, most won't achieve that goal and the larger need — the need to provide the majority of young people who play the game the safest possible environment — needs to come first.
Branch, essentially, is saying he doesn't care what the NHL thinks of the Liambas hit because his league is different, not the same. He decided to set a precedent in this case, which meant Liambas ends up being an unfortunate test case. Really, Branch was thinking more like a parent and less like a hockey executive who's primary task is to funnel players to the NHL.
And maybe that's a very good thing.