The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), a member of the Canadian Hockey League, announced it will ban fighting beginning in the 2023-24 season. The QMJHL members’ assembly voted to endorse the ban in a February 23rd meeting. The league has been moving towards an outright ban on fighting since 2020. The league added a 10-minute misconduct to the usual five-minute major for fighting in 2020, along with a one-game suspension for any player who fought three times in the same season. The 2020 change was reported to be a reaction to pressure from then Quebec Minister for Education, Isabelle Charest, who threatened to withhold financial aid to the league’s Quebec based teams if the league did not implement harsher penalties for fighting.
On March 16, 2023 the president of the QMJHL’s executive committee, Richard Létourneau, confirmed that the league will now pursue a complete “ban” on fighting. It is unclear exactly how this will work. The most logical option would probably be to follow the NCAA rules for fighting, whereby fighting is penalized with a five-minute major plus a game disqualification. Adding the game disqualification means the player is kicked out of that game and is suspended for the following game. Létourneau stated on March 16, “The details have to be finalized. We have an expanded hockey committee, made up of general managers, coaches and owners, to come up with a way to apply this rule and have it accepted by the minister and have it ratified at our June members’ assembly.”
It should be noted a game disqualification is not a true ban. It is a step towards getting fighting out of the junior game, but, as in college hockey, it is likely emotions will get the best of some players and the gloves will be dropped. The QMJHL is considering how to deal with a situation in which an instigator begins a fight with an unwilling counterpart. It is likely a player who fights back out of self-defense will not face a suspension. This would be a departure from college hockey rules. The overall effect of a game disqualification will probably be to entirely phase out staged fights in the QMJHL, which are very rare as-is because of the 10 minute misconduct and the three fight rule, and to ensure coaches actively try to deter players from fighting in order to keep them in the lineup.
Coaches and general managers say the ban on fighting it is an extension of ongoing trends within the league and will not materially change their preparations. Ritchie Thibeau, general manager of the Moncton Wildcats, said an official ban will not make an appreciable difference to the Wildcats. “I don’t foresee it changing the game for us in Moncton here in the way we play, and the way in the league, because [fighting has] pretty well been eradicated [already].”
The impetus for increased sanctions for fighting, while publicly endorsed by the league, come once again from outside. Isabelle Charest, who is now Quebec’s minister of sports, recreation and the outdoors, is behind the call for a game, or longer, suspension. According to reports, she has not ruled out attempting to force the league to adopt the increased sanctions through the provincial act respecting safety in sports. The QMJHL features players between sixteen and twenty years old. Charest has justified taking action based on the imperative to protect minor players from the violence inherent in fights, which can include both minors and legal adults.
Charest told Le Journal de Quebec on March 7 she did not want to force the league to take actions and wanted to leave hockey decisions to the league, but she did not entirely rule out the possibility of intervening. “We don’t want to get to that point . . . [the QMJHL has] the expertise and experience to implement the various regulations. But I still reiterated the need for something that, in my opinion, and that of many other leagues in the world, is non-negotiable.”
The league appears to have gotten ahead of overt provincial interference by acquiescing to Charest’s wishes. The league’s actions cannot be understood without examining the link between increased government scrutiny around hazing and sexual assault issues within the league and fighting. Longtime QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau resigned March 5, a year before his planned retirement, in the wake of investigations dating to hazing and initiations in the 1990s involving QMJHL teams. Courteau testified at a legislative hearing in Quebec City on hazing rituals in hockey in February, where he told politicians none of the sort of allegations described in cases before the Ontario Superior Court involved the QMJHL. In February, an Ontario Superior Court Justice declined to certify a class action suit against the CHL and all member leagues and teams alleging team staff either allowed and/or participated in “physical, and sexual assault, hazing, bullying, physical and verbal harassment, sexual harassment, forced consumption of alcohol and illicit drugs” among other things. The Justice ruled holding all teams and leagues liable for the actions of others was untenable but, importantly, affirmed he believed individuals playing in the CHL did indeed suffer the abuses alleged in the suit.
Former Montreal Alouettes president Mario Cecchini, who officially takes over as QMJHL Commissioner May 8, will have to navigate both the ban on fighting and looming hazing issues. Cecchini made an explicit link between fighting on the ice and hazing incidents off the ice – at least in terms of situating them as threats to the league – saying in his introductory news conference, “I think we just need to adjust, at least on the things that have been discussed, like fighting and hazing.” He went on to say, “We obviously have to improve on these situations, and even eliminate them in some cases. How do you make a culture change? With a lot of determination, with a lot of conviction, and with a lot of precision and clarity in how you expect everyone to behave.”
At present, the WHL and the OHL have no plans to implement wider bans on fighting, but it will be interesting to see if other provincial governments begin to examine fighting in junior hockey from a child welfare standpoint. Leagues need to begin evaluating if continuing to allow fights between minors and adults, while part of the game, open them up to liability. It will also be interesting to see if more provincial officials begin to approach hazing and sexual assault issues within major junior hockey – both by players and of players – from a more explicit child welfare orientation.
 Carcillo v. Canadian Hockey League (2023), No. CV-20-00642705-00CP (Can. Ont. Sup. Ct. J.).