Hockey is a sport that has been all about toughness from day one. Toughness is not all about fighting though. It’s about being willing to give or take a hit to make a play. It’s about taking time and space away from the opposition. It’s about blocking shots, standing in front of the net. It’s about being willing to pay the price to help your team win. It also means that when push comes to shove, it’s about stepping up and standing up for your teammates, or about changing the momentum of a game by dropping the gloves.
The instigator rule, when it was adopted by NHL general managers for the start of the 1992-93 season, made non-fighting, cheap-shot artists rejoice with glee. It added a two-minute minor and game misconduct to a five-minute fighting penalty if game officials felt one player had deliberately started the fight. The game misconduct was changed to a 10-minute misconduct starting in the 1996-97 season. Also, after a certain amount of instigator penalties, the player would be suspended. Agitators, back-stabbers and cheap-shot artists, whose acts wouldn’t have lasted two games prior to that date, are still celebrating the day their league legislated an end to accountability.
By changing hockey in an attempt to try to appease some American viewers in non-traditional hockey markets, people who wouldn’t touch hockey with a 10-foot remote, the NHL thought it had planted seeds for a lucrative TV deal when it introduced the rule almost 20 years ago. No need to say that the TV deal didn’t happen and what the NHL got instead is a giant skirt that too many players have been hiding behind ever since.
While the Bettman era has proven to be inconsistent at best in its dealing with suspensions and punishments, it has become very clear with their most recent rulings that the players simply can’t rely on the league to protect them. In addition, the two referee system, which was meant to penalize infractions on the ice, has also failed miserably as not only do the players have to deal with two different judgements, but at least half the referees are incompetent, whether it’s from not being ready for that level of play or simply not cut for it.
The NHL, in its wisdom, has also taken away the players’ only way to protect and police themselves by imposing the instigator rule on them. With the standings being as tight as they are in a league that gives up points for losing games, when a powerplay goal could be the difference between a win and a loss, players certainly are reluctant to put their team in a difficult position by taking an additional 2 minutes and having to sit for 17 minutes.
People tend to think of goons when the topic of the instigator rule is brought up. They think of a Derek Boogaard going after a Sidney Crosby, for whatever reason, instead of thinking of a Boogaard being able to defend the Crosby’s of this world, just like Dave Semenko and Marty McSorly did for Wayne Gretzky. The fact is that it’s so much more than that. The infamous night that Zdeno Chara injured Max Pacioretty, there was a play in that game that went unnoticed (and rightfully so), when Johnny Boychuk almost took PK Subban’s knee out. Ryan White, on the ice at the time, went straight at Boychuk and fought him fair and square. White received a 2, a 5 and a 10 for doing the right thing! Do people think that Jarome Iginla, Corey Perry, Eric Staal, Ryan Kesler, Jeff Carter, Bobby Ryan or Ryan Getzlaf wouldn’t do the same? And what impact would it have on the game if they were lost for 17 minutes of the game?
Short of promoting the complete abolishment of the instigator rule, the fact remains that important changes to the rule need to be made so that accountability is back in the game. While reverting back to the referees’ judgement isn’t very appealing, it’s definitely an option. Others, on the other hand, want the instigator rule completely gone. Between the two, the latter would be more beneficial.
“Get rid of it,” said Keith Tkachuk, a veteran who liked the NHL a lot better when players could police themselves. “Accountability is everything and right now there is very little. They should just get rid of it and the game will get a lot cleaner.”
“You take the instigator rule away and there are a lot of guys in the league who won’t be acting the way they do,” said Edmonton center Shawn Horcoff, not a fighter by any stretch. “They feel protected by it. Everybody knows it. There are players who, at times, deserve to be challenged.”
“No one wants to see players hurt,” said John Tortorella. “There needs to be some sort of honor and honesty in our game and I think we’ve lost that with the rules changes.”
The coach made it clear that while he thinks other rules changes such as eliminating benign obstruction have contributed to the problem, the instigator rule is the root cause. Tortorella is not alone among the hockey community in that belief, but the instigator rule that mandates a two-minute minor plus a 10-minute misconduct penalty for those who start a fight in defense of a teammate, is hardly a recent change, having been adopted in 1992-93.
“It’s not just that, but I think it’s a lousy rule,” Tortorella said. “I think the game has gotten this way because we have not allowed the players to police themselves. To me, that’s the bottom line.
“Players need to police themselves on the ice, not the rules, not supplementary discipline and all that,” he said. “That’s where I think we’ve lost honesty. Call me old school, if you want. It’s wrong. “The instigator creates a mindset for players who you wouldn’t even see them if the instigator was not there.”
The best quote comes from former Blues tough guy and current team radio analyst Kelly Chase: “When I played, I didn’t have to call (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman to find out what the punishment was for running a guy from behind in Detroit,” Chase said. “The punishment was Bob Probert and Joe Kocur.”
Nobody wants more violence, but many hockey fans and players want honour and accountability in their game. Ever since the instigator rule, there hasn’t been much of either.