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ECHL is not about to scrap scrapping

November 22, 2018

Fighting continues to become less frequent in the NHL and in its top developmental circuit, the American Hockey League, but we see it quite frequently at the Double-A level in which the Komets skate.

And those who run the Komets don’t particularly want fighting to go by the wayside anytime soon.

They like hard-hitting, tough teams that scrap. They believe it remains an important facet of the sport to have players police themselves, weed out the stick work and dirty plays that referees sometimes miss.

And Fort Wayne fans like it when Taylor Crunk, Cody Sol or even ECHL MVP Shawn Szydlowski engage in fisticuffs at games like tonight’s annual Bob Chase Memorial Thanksgiving Game. The Komets will face the Brampton Beast at 7:30 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum.

“It’s not a secret that, as the owners and managers of this hockey club, we’ve always liked the physical part of the game,” Komets general manager David Franke said. “Not only the physicality (like checking), but if there’s going to be a fight or two a game, then that’s fine on our end. It’s been a part of hockey all these years.

“I realize that other leagues are trying to get away from it, but at the end of the day we’re a Double-A, minor-league hockey and if it helps get people in the seats then that’s a good thing for us and for the whole league.”

The Komets (5-8-0) may be on to something. Not only did they enter this week third among ECHL teams in fighting majors with 13 through the first 13 games : Rapid City had 17 majors in 16 games and Cincinnati had 15 in 15 games : but the Komets lead the ECHL in average home attendance with 8,488 fans per game, just ahead of Toledo’s 7,441.

“I’m not advocating brawls and that kind of stuff, but we like to have a physical team and we like to have some guys on the team who can drop (the gloves) and go,” Franke said. “We think that’s a part of Komet hockey. If you look at our fans, or the fans in any building, whenever there’s a fight, they all get up and they’re yelling and screaming. If the linesmen get in early and break it up before it gets started, all you hear is a bunch of boos. I’m not advocating it should be a part of the game where it’s all the game is, but it is part of the game and has been for a long time.”

Fighting in the NHL has gone way down over the last five seasons, from .413 per game in 2013-14 to only .119 per game last season. In the AHL, the amount of fighting has been higher but the decrease also swift, from 1.718 per game in 2013-14 to .909 in 2016-17, the last season The Journal Gazette could get complete stats.

In the ECHL, fighting has also decreased, but it clearly remains a big part of the game. The fights per game over the last six seasons, beginning in 2012-13 were: 1.612, 1.435, 1.548, 1.128, 1.230 and 1.167.

Coming into this week, there had been 223 fighting majors in 197 games, or .883 per game, a number almost sure to go up.

So why are players in the ECHL still dropping the gloves? For some, it’s as simple as doing anything to show they deserve a spot on a team.

“There are some guys who do it because they have to just to survive,” said the Komets’ Justin Kea, who has fought three times this season.

Toledo coach Dan Watson agreed that in the ECHL, where rosters are smaller than in the AHL, players have to do anything they can to prove they can hack it. A player who can score and be tough is, therefore, showing he’s multifaceted and of more potential value.

“Guys are trying to make a name for themselves and get recognized by any way possible,” said Watson, whose conference-leading 11-1-1 team is tied for 14th with eight fights. “American Hockey League teams want guys who can play but also handle themselves, especially in the roles they’re going to go up and play there, so I think there are some guys down here who still like to (fight). And, hey, it’s entertaining and the fans like it. That’s OK in my book.”

While having smaller lineups might suggest it’s harder to carry enforcers in the ECHL, it seems to create an atmosphere in which players want to stick up for one another more. And a single fight can wake up a crowd or a quiet bench.

“It’s still players policing themselves at times, I feel, and it’s still part of the game regardless of how you want to get rid of it or not get rid of it,” Watson said. “I think it’s necessary at times, as long as it’s done the right way. It can certainly turn momentum for a team. A lot of times that’s what it’s for, or you’re just sticking up for yourself or a teammate, and that obviously creates a good culture and brings teams closer together.”

One might wonder why that wouldn’t correlate as much at the AHL level. Kea, who has played 71 games there, has a theory: the higher the level, the tougher the players, and therefore the less likely they are to find a willing opponent to fight.

“I think there’s still a lot of fighting in the American League. I fought there a lot,” Kea said. “But there are a ton of tough guys in that league that are super tough, so you don’t even want to fight them. That’s something to consider; guys are so tough that some skate away and are like, ‘Nah, I’m good.’”

The NHL has curbed fighting to make it more family friendly, but the influx of high-flying skill players has also weeded out tough guys. Szydlowski won the ECHL’s scoring championship last season, but it’s hard to imagine Connor McDavid willingly fighting at a similar pace in the NHL.

“There aren’t a lot of skill guys anymore who can fight (in the NHL),” Kea said. “Back in the day, that wasn’t the case. Bob Probert could score and beat the (crap) out of somebody, so that’s come out of the game. I still think there are guys who can do it, but they don’t do it as much. And the game’s so fast now that it’s tough to keep up with those guys.”

But in markets such as Fort Wayne or Rapid City, South Dakota, they want to do whatever they can to make sure butts are in the seats. And if that means having some tough guys, then so be it.

“That’s how we grew up, with a physical style of hockey,” Franke said. “And at the minor-league level, the Double-A level, you’ve got to do some things to get people in the seats. If you look at our league, we’ve got a problem getting people into the seats, and if this is a way to get people excited, then I’m all for it.

“I’m not advocating goonism or brawls, but a good physical game and a fight or two per game, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s part of the game. It’s part of the deal. And our fans love it.”

jcohn@jg.net

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