Sunday, 5 February 2012

NHL's Rule 46

NHL’s Rule 46 deals with fisticuffs and when you read through the almost 2,500 words in detail you can clearly see that it is written to tolerate fighting and doesn’t deal harshly enough with the combatants.   There is too much flexibility in defining what constitutes a fight, and how players should be dealt with.   Let’s see if we can help the NHL figure out how to give the referees more clarity, and maybe cut down on the size of their rule book.

They say that rules are written for those who don’t follow them but in the case of Rule 46 I think the opposite is true.  Those who are in the NHL strictly as enforcers live by this section and the flexibility provided allows them to continue to fill their role when called upon.   I’m not going to go through all of Rule 46 – available here – instead I will just cover the areas that I think are relevant to my objective of seeing fighting eliminated from hockey.

46.1 Fighting – A fight shall be deemed to have occurred when at least one player (or goalkeeper) punches or attempts to punch an opponent repeatedly or when two players wrestle in such a manner as to make it difficult for the Linesmen to intervene and separate the combatants.

Pretty straight forward; throw a punch or wrestle aggressively and you are deemed to be fighting.  Notice that there is no reference to dropping the gloves.  That means if you throw 2 or 3 punches while in a scrum in the corner you should get a major penalty.  But you don’t see that called very often.

46.2 Aggressor – The aggressor in an altercation shall be the player who continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenseless position or who is an unwilling combatant.

A player who is deemed to be the aggressor is assessed a major penalty for fighting and a game misconduct.   From my point of view we don’t see this called often enough and more players should get tossed for that game based on the “continues to throw punches” part of the rule.

46.5 Continuing or Attempting to Continue a Fight - Any player who persists in continuing or attempting to continue a fight or altercation after he has been ordered by the Referee to stop, or who resists a Linesman in the discharge of his duties shall, at the discretion of the Referee, incur a misconduct or game misconduct penalty in addition to any penalties imposed.

Forget the discretion of the referee; this should be an automatic game misconduct and a further 1-game suspension for the next game.  Continuing to fight, after being warned by the ref, demonstrates that you don’t have any discipline and are not interested in playing the game. 

46.6 Face Protection - If a player penalized as an instigator of an altercation is wearing a face shield (including a goalkeeper), he shall be assessed an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

I love how this rule demonstrates the inconsistency of the NHL’s objective of reducing serious head injuries.  They tolerate fighting, which involves blows to the head.  But if you don’t remove your face shield and helmet once you start a fight then you are given an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  Because you wouldn’t want to harm the opposing player’s knuckles by leaving your head and face protected.  By the NHL’s rules, it’s better to have a concussion than a bloody or broken hand.

46.8, 46.9 and 46.10 all cover instances when players fight off the ice, between periods of a game or before the puck is dropped.  The penalty might be a game misconduct or nothing, depending on how the situation is handled by the referee.  My opinion is that if you fight at any time it should be an automatic game misconduct.   If you don’t have any discipline and get involved in an altercation before the game or between periods then it should carry an additional 1-game suspension.  And if you are fighting away from the ice then the local police should step in and charge the players as if they were citizens on the street.

46.11 Instigator - An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season.

Ah yes, the rule that the pro-fighting crowd loves to hate, the one that they think is the cause of all the head injuries because the team enforcer cannot make the “rats” accountable.   This rule was brought in for the ’91-’92 season to reduce the staged fights and eliminate bench clearing brawls that used to overshadow the game in the 70’s and 80’s.   I think that it is not used enough by the referee as virtually every single fight has an instigator as outlined in the rule above.  Anyone who starts the fight should do so with the knowledge that they are putting their team down a man for 2 minutes.

46.13 Jerseys - A player who deliberately removes his jersey prior to participating in an altercation or who is clearly wearing a jersey that has been modified and does not conform to Rule 9 – Uniforms, shall be assessed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a game misconduct.

Basically if your jersey is not tied down properly, or if you remove it, then you get tossed for the remainder of the game for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Removing your uniform gives you an advantage over your opponent because they can’t clutch and grab the jersey during the fight.  To me this looks like the NHL developing rules that tolerate fighting, and try to make it as fair as possible while at the same time assessing a 5 minute penalty.  They are concerned about someone taking off their jersey and getting an advantage but not worried about two large men pounding each other in the head.   Crazy.

46.21 Fines and Suspensions – Instigator - A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation for the third time in one Regular season shall be suspended for the next two regular season games of his team.

This part of rule 46 also states that the 4th penalty earns the instigator a 4 game suspension and his 5th earns him 6 games in the press box.  However the rule also states, “Prior to the commencement of each Stanley Cup Final, a player or goalkeeper will have his current instigator violations removed from his current playoff record”.   So all your sins are washed away once the playoffs begin.   That tells me that the NHL doesn’t see fighting as a serious issue and that any serial instigator would get a chance to suit up for his team once post-season play begins.


The NHL can easily clean up the rules on fighting by making it very clear that it will not be tolerated and that players who get involved in fisticuffs will be met with greater consequences.     Fight and it’s an automatic game misconduct and enforce the instigator rule so that the team who starts it ends up having to kill a penalty.  This simple change would further reduce fighting once teams realized that they cannot afford to carry an enforcer who gets tossed almost every time he leaves the bench.  Coaches would demand that their teams play with more discipline and avoid getting involved in an altercation.

The NHL can phase in tougher penalties in the future to continue to make progress in eliminating fighting.  Start with an automatic game misconduct and in the next couple of seasons increase that by adding a 1-game suspension.    At the same time put the referees firmly in charge by increasing penalties and suspensions for any infraction that would be deemed a cheap shot; hits to head, stick work, slew foot, etc.   Teams can concentrate on skill, hard but clean hockey hits and an overall increased pace of play.  Gone would be the staged fights, the retaliation for perceived acts that are against “the code” and calling up of a goon from the minors when a team is facing someone that they think needs to be made accountable for past actions.

This would ensure that it’s not part of the game.

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