Eric Selleck (left) and Michael Liambas (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
The American League recently instituted a set of rule changes with the aim of having one-dimensional frequent fighters fighting each other less frequently. The AHL has more than double the number of fights as the NHL.
The American League is often seen as a petri dish for future NHL rules, but there’s no chance the NHL will be adopting the minor pro circuit’s recent rule changes regarding fighting. And that’s mostly because it doesn’t have to because it doesn’t face the same issues when it comes to fighting that the AHL does.
And that’s because, even though its teams seem perfectly content to sign one-dimensional players such as Michael Liambas to two-way contracts, it actually doesn’t have the problems a guy such as Liambas brings to the game. Effectively kicked out of two leagues already in his career, Liambas has averaged during his pro career one goal every 21.2 games and one fight in every 2.6. According to hockeyfights.com, Liambas had 20 fights in the AHL last season, which is more than nine entire NHL teams had in 2015-16. In fact, Liambas had three more fights than the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings had combined.
There is virtually no chance Liambas will be seen in the NHL, either in the short- or long-term future. The same goes for the vast majority of the AHL’s frequent fighters. So while teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators – who just re-signed Liambas to a two-way deal – are happy to put these players under contract, they’re also content to see them wreak havoc in the minor leagues. And it’s guys such as Liambas the AHL wants to rein in.
According the AHL president David Andrews, two percent of the players in the AHL engage in more than 20 percent of the fights. And this was even after the league instituted a rule in 2014-15 that called for a game misconduct for engaging in more than one fight in a game. “We still have what we would consider to be a far too high an incidence of fighting in our league,” AHL president Dave Andrews told thn.com. The AHL still has more than twice as many fights as the NHL on a per-game basis, so the league’s board of governors voted unanimously to implement the following changes to its fighting rules:
* Players who enter into a fight prior to, at, or immediately following the drop of the puck for a faceoff will be assessed an automatic game misconduct in addition to other penalties assessed.
* During the regular season, any player who incurs his 10th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for one game. For each subsequent fighting major up to 13, the player shall also be suspended automatically for one game.
* During the regular season, any player who incurs his 14th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for two games. For each subsequent fighting major, the player shall also be suspended automatically for two games.
* In any instance where the opposing player was assessed an instigator penalty, the fighting major shall not count towards the player’s total for this rule.
So let’s take our friend, Mr. Liambas, as an example. Under these new rules, he would have been suspended for a total of 16 games this season. (In his 16th fight, his opponent received an instigator penalty, so Liambas would not have had that game added to his total and wouldn’t have received two games for that one.)
“More than anything we looked at the number of fights that involve the same players fighting each other on a fairly regular basis,” Andrews told thn.com. “The thinking is that with this rule change we can reduce our rate of fighting by 20 percent. The goal here is, for a whole host of good reasons, to have players who are one-dimensional players fight less.”
With a total of 696 fights this season, the AHL had 0.62 fights per game. Compare that to the NHL, which had 344 fights this season for an average of just 0.28 fights per game. Led by Liambas, the AHL had 22 players who had 10 or more fights last season. The NHL, by comparison, had only four, with Cody McLeod of the Colorado Avalanche leading the way with 12. Which is why the NHL, which often gives rules a trial run in the AHL, doesn’t feel it needs the most recent rule.
“This isn’t an NHL initiated proposal,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to thn.com. “The AHL feels it has a different situation than currently exists in the NHL in relation to fighting. The rule, as I understand it, was conceived of in specific relation to the AHL’s current situation and conditions. I wouldn’t expect any necessary follow-up at the NHL level.”
Andrews said he and the board have been working on the rule proposal, which is much like the one the Ontario League implemented four years ago, since last season and have kept the NHL apprised of its plans every step of the way. One contingent the league did not consult, however, was its fan base.
“We did zero research and we did not talk to our fans, but I can tell you that our board members’ vote on this was unanimous, so I would expect that our ownership are not particularly concerned about the impact on our fan base,” Andrews said. “And it’s not because they don’t care about the fans. They don’t believe that our fans are attending our games for the purpose of seeing fights.”
So will the rule have any real effect on fighting in the AHL? It will likely curb the incidence of them, but will the enforcers in minor pro hockey be any less inclined to seek vigilante justice because of the threat of a suspension? Well, if an ominous tweet attributed to Stu Bickel, who had 16 fights last season is any indication, the answer is no. “Ten fight rule fine by me,” the tweet attributed to Bickel’s account said. “But is a player who needs to stand up for a teammate really less dangerous if he can’t drop the gloves?”
Bickel clarified his tweet to thn.com, saying he doesn't know what the result of the rule will be. "I was simply asking the question, 'If there's no fighting, is it going to be a situation suddenly where nobody stands up for their teammates or are guys going to find other means to respond outside of fighting. And I asked the question intentionally because I don't have the answer to it."