This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 21, 2010

Fighting to Death

Quick: What’s the roughest neighborhood in the CCHA? If you answered, “Bowling Green,” or, “Big Rapids,” you’d be right — at least as far as last weekend’s action is concerned.

In Northern Michigan’s 6-0 win over BG last Friday, the teams combined for 99 penalty minutes, in large part because of a fight at 17:32 in the third. At that point, the game was over. NMU was already up by six goals and there was some pushing and shoving around the Wildcats net.

Then, as freshman defenseman Robert Shea was being led off the ice, he punched Wildcats goaltender Brian Stewart, who was minding his own business in the crease, as goalies often do when the mayhem ensues.

That made things worse, of course. In the end, 10 players were assessed penalties in the altercation. Shea received five minutes for fighting and a game disqualification; it was Shea’s second five-minute major for fighting this season. Bowling Green’s James McIntosh and Northern’s Erik Spady — who defended Stewart — also received DQs.

Things were just as pretty in Ewigleben Arena. Here were two of the league’s top teams battling for position in the standings. Ferris State had already gone taken four points from Miami in Oxford earlier this season by winning two shootout contests in Steve Cady Arena.

In Friday’s 4-0 Miami win, there were four penalties that were contact to the head. In Saturday’s 5-4 Miami win, there was one contact-to-the-head penalty, two calls for grasping the facemask and the incident at 18:34 in the first that resulted in the RedHawks’ Andy Miele’s five minutes for kicking with an accompanying game disqualification and an additional two minutes for roughing. That late-first-period stoppage of play saw six penalties called — three to Miele, and three more minors to another RedHawks skater and two Bulldogs.

This is a rough season for the CCHA, in more ways than one. Three of the league’s top teams are among the top teams in the country for penalty minutes. Ferris State is second in the nation in PIMs, averaging 20.9 per game. Miami is seventh in the nation, averaging 18.2 per game. Michigan State is ninth, with 17.6.

If these were garden-variety slashes, roughs and the occasional knee, there would be no call for alarm. These is, however, a whole lot of contact to the head. Whether that’s in the form of an elbow or a hand to the face mask, it’s all dangerous.

In December, Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson was down to three defensemen because of injuries, and he was a bit hot about concussions that Ian Cole and Eric Ringel had sustained the week before while playing Miami. These were, said Jackson, “… direct results from high hits that weren’t called.” In other words, contact to the head.

This week, Jackson’s bench is still shortened by injury. Ringel is still out with that concussion, and Billy Maday sustained a concussion and shoulder injury in a Jan. 10 game against Ferris State. Also out as a result of a hit in that game is ND’s Teddy Ruth. Jackson called the plays that led to injuries in that game “blatant head blows” and told Steve Lowe of the South Bend Tribune that the hit to Ruth “could have been life-threatening.”

As a result of further review of that game, FSU freshman Travis Ouellette was given an additional game suspension by the league. He did receive a major penalty and game DQ for hitting Ruth during that contest, but the hit that injured Maday was never called.

Just a glance at this season’s box scores from CCHA games alone shows an alarming number of CTH penalties and separate infractions involving face masks, a point of emphasis for the league this year. No team is sainted, not even the Irish.

These numbers are anecdotal, as I went through the boxes once. They are, however, interesting. Seven teams have 10 or more CTH penalties this season, with Western Michigan leading (17). The Bulldogs, RedHawks and Spartans, however, each have fewer than 10, as do the Irish.

There are players that stand out in surprising ways. Blair Riley, Ferris State’s leading scorer (16-11–27) and arguably the Bulldogs’ best player, is responsible for five of FSU’s nine CTH penalties. Bowling Green’s best player and lead scorer, freshman Jordan Samuels-Thomas (8-11–29), has three of BG’s 11 CTH penalties.

There are other non-CTH trends that are a bit disturbing. Shea, the guy who was kicked out for punching Stewart, is the only player to have been called for fighting this season, and he was called for it twice. Lake Superior’s Dan Barczuk distinguished himself one game, a 5-1 win over NMU Dec. 11, for two goalie-contact penalties, one at 19:59 in the second and one at 19:58 in the third.

For teams on a losing end of game — like Bowling Green last weekend, and when the Wolverines took 65 minutes in penalties in a 5-1 home loss to Miami Nov. 7 — sometimes an unraveling is unavoidable. These are young kids. Emotions run high.

But one of the more disturbing things about some of these games is the fact that the players taking the penalties are on the teams with the upper hand: FSU and Miami, for example, when playing Notre Dame.

And all of this is especially disturbing because someone has died recently from injuries sustained in a hockey fight. Donald Sanderson of the Whitby Dunlops, an amateur team near Toronto, hit his head on the ice when he fell during a fight Dec. 12. He died Jan. 2 after remaining comatose for three weeks. Granted, his injury was sustained from a fall to the ice and not a direct blow to the head from another player, but the fall was the result of a fight — and it seems these days as though players are ready to throw down for any reason, at any time.

In December, the New York Times published an article that linked head trauma in hockey players to permanent brain damage. It’s the kind of thing that we’ve come to associate with boxers and football players, but an autopsy performed on Reggie Fleming — an old-school bruiser from Montreal who had a journeyman’s career in the NHL — showed that Fleming had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological disease that leads to dementia.

I don’t buy the theory that full face masks alone are the reason that young hockey players are more reckless and likely to fight. That may be a contributing factor, but there are still plenty of players who grew up wearing full protection and do not hide behind the cages waiting to scrap. I do applaud the league for taking the additional step with Ouellette, and would like to see even more review — and more often.

The sport must self-police, from the coaches to the fans. I love the action, without question. I enjoy a good scrum. But everyone needs to call for the deliberate contact to the head to cease.

In another New York Times article about Sanderson’s death, his teammate Kyle Musselman, unintentionally summed up part of the ongoing problem.

“The refs only call so much,” said Musselman. “You have to protect each other as well as you have to protect yourself.”

Sanderson was fighting to protect one of his teammates when he fell and hit his head on the ice.

Perhaps we need to reconsider what comes to mind when we think of protection.

Also Unsportsmanlike

This boggles the mind.

In an article dated Jan. 20 on Gann Matsuda’s blog Frozen Royalty, Los Angeles Kings president and general manager, Dean Lombardi, completely ripped Michigan coach Red Berenson.

This is no-holds-barred stuff.

In the article, Lombardi said that defenseman Jack Johnson had no coaching and development at UM. Johnson left the Wolverines at the end of his sophomore season in 2007 and has been with the Kings ever since.

“Michigan is the worst,” said Lombardi. He said that he’d steer players toward Boston University rather than UM because “Red doesn’t coach.”

Lombardi claims that the reason Johnson hasn’t lived up to his potential in Los Angeles is because of his days at UM. “Jack just did what he wanted” at UM, said Lombardi, and the Kings have had to teach him the very basics. Lombardi said that Johnson “struggled with” the criticism he received upon arriving in Los Angeles and hearing that he wasn’t quite yet a superstar.

Twenty-two former Wolverines have seen ice time in the NHL during the 2009-10 season. The fact that Johnson was playing college hockey, may not have been a team player in Ann Arbor (because talented young men never believe their own press), may have been uncoachable (again, young) and left after two seasons (while very young) has nothing to do with his current mediocrity in the NHL, right?

In other words, the Kings are unhappy that Johnson’s progress hasn’t been more rapid in Los Angeles during the last four years because of the two years he spent under Berenson?

Perhaps Lombardi missed out on a couple of college classes, too, like the courses that address logic.

He could certainly use a refresher in etiquette.

Soon, I Think

I know it’s a two-note column this week. It’s January and I get tired of saying, “Hey! I just saw a great series!” Besides, there are important issues to hash over. I think.

Last week, I said that I’d talk this week about Lake State and how small CCHA schools like LSSU have difficulty recruiting. That has to be tabled because I’m still gathering some information.

Next week, a retro column with — perhaps — a game of the week thrown in for good measure.


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