Kudos to AHL for getting radical with fighting, shootouts

Ken Campbell
AHL fight

Sometimes change trickles up and other times, it trickles down. In the case of the rule changes recently adopted by the American League, it will be interesting to see whether or not those holding the levers of the NHL take notice.

At its board of governors meetings this week, the AHL passed what can only be described as radical rule alterations. And I use the term “radical” keeping in mind that significant change sometimes moves at a glacial pace in this sport. But give the AHL credit. It made positive moves on two of the most controversial, debated and polarizing issues facing the game today: fighting and shootouts.

What makes it refreshing is these rule changes were conceived and approved by “hockey guys” who are every bit as passionate about the game as their NHL brethren. In fact, the AHL’s competition and player development committees are filled with assistant GMs who are on the path to NHL upper management.

First, let’s look at fighting. AHL president Dave Andrews put forward a motion to give a game misconduct to any player who is involved in more than one fight in a game. And what’s more important, that misconduct will count against the players’ accumulated total when it comes to suspensions. With the exception of the egregious fouls, the AHL gives a one-game suspension to a player when he accumulates three game misconducts in the same season and a game suspension for each subsequent game misconduct.

The intention of the rule is clear. The AHL is trying to basically get the message-sending baloney out of its game. You see, the AHL plays a lot of back-to-back games to save on travel costs, so there are often times when this kind of ridiculousness breaks out near the end of the first game. If a player has already been involved in a fight, he’ll be far less likely to get into another one once the game is out of hand. And who knows? It might deter a player from getting into a fight in the first period, knowing he might have to “save” his fight for later.

And the league has a mechanism to prevent players from goading another into a fight to try to get him kicked out of the game. If a player is involved in a fight in which the other player is identified as the instigator, that fight will not count against the player’s fight total for that game. That, of course, will make referees responsible for handing out that penalty when it’s warranted.

“Absolutely,” Andrews said. “One thing we will be doing is working with our referees to make sure the instigator rule is applied properly.”

Andrews doesn’t see this as part of an evolution toward abolishing fighting in AHL, but it will undoubtedly cut down on the more meaningless ones. (They’re all meaningless, in my opinion, but some are even more meaningless than others.) “We think it will point things in the right direction,” Andrews said. “We think it will be healthier for our league.”

Andrews said there was surprisingly little pushback from the hockey people on the move, but don’t expect it to be adopted by the NHL soon. The NHL, and it has a point here, does not have the same problem with fighting that AHL has. This past season in the AHL, there were a total of 1,959 fighting majors in 1,140 games, which comes out to about 0.86 fights per game. The AHL also had 74 cases where players engaged in multiple fights in the same game.

The NHL, on the other hand, had just 933 fighting majors in 1,230 games, which equals about 0.38 fights per game, fewer than half the fights there are in the AHL.

“The fighting rule is of interest,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who was in attendance at the AHL meetings, “although I would suggest less relevant to the NHL than it could potentially be to the AHL.”

For shootouts, the AHL has decided to go to more overtime and fewer shooters. Starting this coming season, tie games will be decided with a seven-minute overtime with a twist. Teams will play 4-on-4 until the first whistle after the three-minute mark, then will go to 3-on-3 for the remainder of the overtime. There will also be a dry scrape and teams will change ends so it will create the “long change” the AHL is hoping will lead to more goals. If the game is still tied, the shootout will go to three shooters, instead of the five used in the NHL.

Andrews said the AHL wants to cut down on the number of shootouts, saying 25 percent of its games go to overtime and 16 percent to shootouts. In the NHL, 25 percent of games also go to overtime, with 14.5 percent going to shootouts.

And even though the NHL probably won’t follow the AHL when it comes to fighting, you can bet it will be looking closely at how the new overtime format works for its feeder league. There has long been a push to go to 3-on-3 for overtime and if this is successful in reducing the number of shootouts, those banging the table for 3-on-3 will have an emboldened case.

The AHL also passed a rule that will not allow players to play without helmets. If a player loses his lid, he will either have to go to his bench or put his helmet back on, with the chinstrap in place, or receive a minor penalty.

That’s a lot of good work for these guys. And some bold moves. But unlike the NHL, the AHL doesn’t have to get approval from its players before changing a rule, although Professional Hockey Players’ Association executive director Larry Landon is on the competition committee.

“Any change takes time,” Andrews said. “It was like when we instituted the mandatory visor rule. It was seen as earth-shattering, but within three weeks of the season it was standard practice and there was no pushback from anyone.”