If the NHL is serious about reducing the amount of fights in the sport then the rulebook would include a game misconduct for anyone who drops the gloves. I think that rule will eventually be written but the league would have to face-off against the NHLPA to make it happen. As an interim strategy they could easily reduce fighting simply by asking the referees to use the rule book and give the Department of Player Safety a slight change in their focus. Here are 4 subtle changes that the NHL could put in place to make the game safer.
Call The Instigator Rule
The instigator penalty (rule 46.11) was intended to reduce fighting, eliminate multiple player brawls and cut down on goons who tried to start fights with star players in an effort to take them off the ice for 5 minutes. There’s a great summary of how the rule was brought into the league available here.
I find it amazing that out of the hundreds of fights that still occur every year this penalty is rarely called – less than 10% of the time over the past 5 years. Either the refs refuse to call it because of the impact on the team (the instigator gets a 2, 5 and 10 minute misconduct) or they believe that 90% of fights start spontaneously. Perhaps they think that a player who drops his gloves to retaliate against a cheap shot is somehow justified. The NHL should direct the refs to put their opinions aside and call the rule as it was intended. Any player who is the obvious instigator should be penalized.
I don’t believe that players today think much about this rule because it’s rarely called. If officials started to apply it consistently and regularly, even in 20% or 25% of all fights, the players would be a lot more hesitant to take revenge for some perceived slight. We might even see a few exciting clean hits without today’s usual resulting punch to the head.
Stop The Crap After The Whistle
If you have watched a few seasons of NHL you have noticed the change in officiating that occurs in the first round of the playoffs. Refs call the game tighter and immediately get between players at every whistle. The league knows that emotions can run high in the initial games of the first round and extra effort is made to control the play and keep players focused on hockey.
Why not apply that same logic to the regular season. Get between players, as safely as possible of course, and push them apart when scrums occur. The league could direct on ice officials to address any sign of face washing, pushing or excessive chirping with a warning to the players, followed up with a visit to the each of the team benches and coaches to deliver the same message. If it happens again then assess unsportsmanlike penalties to the offending skaters. The referee has a lot of discretion in calling this penalty and can use it to set the tone on how the game is going to be called.
If you let the players engage in the usual crap after the whistle then you encourage an escalation in emotion and violence. It starts with the glove in the face, leads to a targeted hit the next time those players are on the ice and then the teams are hunting sweater numbers. Clamp down early and send the message that it’s not going to be tolerated. Players and coaches will then focus on hockey.
Crack Down On Dangerous Penalties
Referees also have discretion on applying any physical fouls as per the NHL rule book. These dangerous penalties include the following:
Rule 42 - Charging
Rule 43 - Checking from Behind
Rule 44- Clipping
Rule 45 - Elbowing
Rule 46 - Fighting
Rule 47 - Head-butting
Rule 48 - Illegal Check to the Head
Rule 49 - Kicking
Rule 50 - Kneeing
Rule 51 - Roughing
Rule 52 - Slew-footing
For most of the above fouls the referee, at his discretion, may assess: a) a major penalty, based on the degree of violence, or, b) a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injure his opponent.
With a little prompting from NHL’s head office, and support from the Department of Player Safety, referees could increase the penalty time for any obvious and excessive dangerous hit. Every hockey fan has seen examples of a particularly violent foul that only results in the minimum sentence in the penalty box. It wouldn’t take very many games of enhanced enforcement to modify the behaviour of hockey players.
Track Dangerous Penalties By Player
In support of the referees as they increase the penalties for physical fouls, the Department of Player Safety should be tracking all players who are called for the most dangerous and violent infractions. Any player who piles up an established amount of penalty time under these specific rules would be called in for an interview. Instead of waiting for an extremely violent incident that demands a suspension they should be proactively sending warnings to players who constantly play on and over the edge. If an NHL player knows that he is being watched, and that suspensions will likely have little leeway applied, then they will adjust their playing style or pay the consequences.
Incorporate these 4 changes, using only the current NHL rule book, and the need for policing and revenge would be reduced significantly. The degree of success is only limited by the quality and consistency of the NHL on ice official. If they perform as outlined above the need for dropping the gloves will become almost nonexistent. And that’s a good thing.
Note: Thanks to @TheHockeyRef for prompting the content for this post. An official who also believes that hockey is a better game without fighting and needless violence.