Friday, 1 March 2013

Get Rid of the Instigator Rule

One of the most polarizing and misunderstood NHL rules has to be the Instigator Rule.  Hockey fans cite the rule as the cause for the demise of the enforcer role, cheap shots and the increase in concussions.  The majority of messages that I get are from fans who never watched a game in the 80’s or have never bothered to look up any history on when or why the Instigator Rule entered the rule book.  A recent web post calling for its repeal prompted me to write this rebuttal.

On February 28th the website NHL Expert Picks published a blog article titled Why the Instigator Rule Needs to Go.  It starts with a statement that there is a growing problem in the NHL with headshots to defenseless players, and then proceeds to link that to the instigator rule.   So let’s put aside the obvious, that increasing fights would increase headshots, and focus on some of the other points made.   Excerpts from the post are included below along with my comments, some of which admittedly are boring repetitive common sense arguments I have made in the past. 

In today’s environment, there is a lack of respect among the players playing today’s game. This attitude and talk throughout the league is a hot topic, which revolves around the instigator rule and its part in the game today.

I have trouble understanding how repealing the instigator rule, with an expected increase in punches to the head, will suddenly cause players to respect each other.  Respect is earned, not given.  You can’t enforce it as an attitude or install it in an opponent with your fist.

In 1992, the NHL brought the Instigator Rule as a part of Rule 46 into the game to reduce fighting. Any player who was deemed to start a fight would receive an additional two minutes on top of a major penalty for fighting. There was also the possibility of either a game misconduct or ten minute misconduct.

The instigator rule was first added to fighting rules in 1976-77 to allow referees to call a major and/or game misconduct for any player who is clearly the instigator of a fight.   In 1991-92 the rule was strengthened in response to 1st line players being attacked by 4th line goons, in order to take an opponent’s star player off the ice for 5 minutes

While fighting has dropped over the years since the adaptation of the rule, headshots and other cheap shots have reared their ugly heads. Fighting will always be a part of hockey, but illegal headshots are not part of the game. This type of conduct is what the NHL is trying to clean up.

Actually fighting is not part of the game – Rule 46 clearly states that you are penalized for engaging in it.   Therefore fights are part of the illegal headshots that the NHL is trying to clean up.   How many times has the instigator rule been called during a fight?  For the past 4 seasons (08-09 to 11-12) the instigator of a fight has been penalized less than 8% of the time.  It’s a rule that is rarely called.

Also the NHL started baseline testing and guidelines for tracking and managing concussions in 1997.  Therefore I’m not sure how anyone can definitively state that concussions are worse today versus “the good old days” because no data exists prior to 1997.

Back not so many years ago in simpler times, top players were protected by certain teammates. What do Bob Probert, Dave Brown, and Dave Semenko all have in common? They were enforcers who patrolled the ice protecting players like Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky, and Dough Gilmour.

In simpler times the internet didn’t exist and this author wouldn’t have a platform.  Wait a minute….neither would I.  Never mind….

Nobody dared cheap shot these star players because they knew they would have to answer for their actions.  A cheap shot would result in a fight with Semeko, Probert, and Brown. Players were accountable for their actions back then. But, now they only answer to the NHL, and not the players on the ice.

Really?  There were no cheap shots during the 70’s and 80’s?   I would suggest that the author of this post should read my article The Magical Time Before the Instigator Rule.  They should also explain why penalty minutes throughout the 80’s were at record levels, even if you remove the fighting majors.  I watched hockey throughout the 80’s and there was plenty of roughing, elbowing, slashing and spearing.  Dropping the gloves didn’t prevent cheap shots but there was an abundance of enforcers taking revenge.

While some people in the media believe if the instigator rule was taken out, coaches would release the enforcers to retaliate on behalf of the injured player who was given a cheap shot. However, this would not be the case.

I’m confused by this statement because that’s precisely what the coaches do today.  The only change would be the frequency; there would be more of it.

There is a code of among the enforcers or fighters in the league, and those players know when the time is right to settle the score. It may not be right away, but the appropriate time will come. The opposing player who injured their teammate will be waiting to exchange fists in another game.

Ah yes, “The Code” and it’s amazing ability to allow players to exact retribution weeks or months after some perceived injustice.   And this delay in settling the score will reduce head shots how?

Injuries in fighting are rare. There are more players being lost for the season or have retired because of hits to the head and concussion type symptoms more so than from fighting. Guys like Eric Lindros, Pat Lafontaine, Marc Savard, Keith Primeau, Steve Moore, and Willie Mitchell just to name a few who players who were injured because of hits to the head.

This season there have been multiple injuries from fighting; Ben Eager (concussion), Ryan Callahan (shoulder), Shawn Thornton (concussion), B.J. Crombeen (concussion-like symptoms), Tye McGinn (broken orbital bone).  And those are just the ones that I found in a 5 minute Google search.  The author may also want to check out my post on Hockey Fights and Concussions.

Why are headshots on the rise? Is it because of bigger equipment? No. Or is it because the game is faster because of the rules changes the NHL implemented after the 2004-05 lockout? No. It is because there is no respect amongst the players? Yes. By taking away the deterrent of retaliation, the game has opened up to a whole new level of disrespect.

Forget all the concussion arguments about hard equipment, big players or fast action.  We can now eliminate those as possible issues.  The real culprit is the inability to punch your opponent in the head thereby teaching them respect.

While the instigator rule was a good thought at the time, now is the time to rework it or abolish it completely in order to protect players from each other. No suspension or fine will ever make a player change attitude in the type of hits he gives to an opponent.

In order to stop these cheap shots to the head, players must police themselves. The players must not tolerate the cheap shot artist, and their type of play. A good fight may be preferable to an illegal shot to the head.

Players policing themselves has never worked.  No one has ever produced a report, based on real data, that proves an increase in fighting has led to a decrease in cheap shots.  I’ve searched for the existence of any study that could prove the policing argument and have not found it.  I have analyzed statistics based on fighting and non-fighting PIMs and found the opposite to be true.  When fights increase, cheap shots increase.  Rats don’t suddenly become respectful, they are more likely to become bolder and hide behind the enforcer on their team.

Removing the instigator rule would be a huge step backward for the NHL.  The hypocrisy of allowing fighting while trying to reduce head trauma is already a topic amongst sports journalists and concussion blogs.   There isn’t a lot of common sense in campaigning for the elimination of a rule that would result in more blows to the head in the misguided hope that it would reduce blows to the head.

1 comment:

  1. I came to this blog believing that the dissolution of the Instigator penalty would in fact be a good thing.
    In terms of simple economics, even, it seemed like the price of a cheap shot was indeed pretty low in that people like Zdeno Chara could wail Pacioretty into the stanchion and be relieved of any consequences from a Dave Semenko-type on the ice.
    Considering the rule as follows: "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." - post check, any member of the Canadians could have, therefore, been classified the instigator. I don't expect there to be a drop off in injuries or such. But it just seems weird to give someone a penalty ontop of a 5 minute major for crossing the ice to drop the gloves in retribution for some pretty bullshit stuff, you know?
    But the numbers don't lie, and you sir have in fact changed my mind.