NHL Player Safety Dropping the Ball

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Claude Lemieux, Sean Avery, Bobby Clarke, Matt Cooke, Dale Hunter, Ulf Samuelsson, Raffi Torres, Steve Downie, Bryan Marchment, Ken Liseman… When reading that list of names, what immediately comes to mind if you are a fan of the NHL? Yes, those players were all dirty, weaselly and underhanded and they have made a reputation with the way they played the game.

But also, all of those guys did, at one point or another, receive lengthily suspensions for their actions and many of them were not protected the way today’s players are, both by the rules and by the NHL itself. Since the new implementation of the Instigator Rule, rats are running free and in spite of a promise from the league to better reprimand the guilty, the powers at be are simply dropping the ball instead. Players have never been as vulnerable to a new race of players: the Rats under the NHL Players’ Safety protection program!

And none is benefiting more from that protection than the biggest rat of all in today’s hockey: Brad Marchand. You don’t believe me? Look for yourself!

So why is the NHL protecting that guy so much? Just before the All-Star break, Marchand was issued a $10,000 fine for his cheap shot on Niklas Kronwall. A week or so later, he shows that he hasn’t learned his lessons and does the same to Tampa Bay Lightning’s defenseman Anton Stralman. And what does the NHL Player Safety do? Nothing. That’s right, no fine, no suspension, nothing!

There has to be something going on here. There have to be Governors around the league wondering why this guy is allowed to do what he does, and players from their own teams are being suspended for what sometimes appear to be much less, and without being repeat offenders! I mean fans, coaches, reporters (other than the Bruins’) are all outraged of what certainly appears to be a huge case of injustice and even favouritism. Does Bruins’ owner Jeremy Jacobs have some compromising pictures of league commissioner Gary Bettman? We know that they are good friends but how can everyone around the NHL not raise a fuss about this?

In the meantime, players can’t defend themselves without putting their team in a very difficult position, in a league where a win or a loss is worth so much due to the parity. And yet, the league itself refuses to protect them! It’s a lose, lose situation… unless you are the Boston Bruins that is.

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The NHL’s Instigator Rule’s Effects

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The National Hockey League and its Board of Governors are constantly looking at ways to improve the game based on hot topics, on trends and tendencies in the game at specific times. They brainstorm for new ideas on how to improve on a game that while extremely popular in some areas, is trailing other major league sports in the United States in most geographical locations. They are trying to cater to non-traditional hockey fans and markets, gain new viewers and please television networks with deep pockets in order to sell the game. Yet sometimes, in doing so, they forget why the game is what it is, that some of the rules (or non-rules) are what they are… and the impact of their decisions and the consequences have a very negative impact and side effects which they could not think of ahead of time.

That is the case when the NHL, under Gary Bettman, a man who was chased out of the NBA and who knew absolutely nothing about hockey, decided to amend the Instigator Rule. There is no doubt that the intent of the Commissioner and the Board of Directors was good when doing so, but the impact – and mostly the precedent – of such a decision has affected the game in a very negative way.

Hockey is the only professional team sport which tolerates fighting. Up until the early 90’s, players who dropped the gloves to settle a conflict on the ice were issued a 5 minutes penalty, but it was before the start of the 1992-93 season that the instigator began changing and shaping the National Hockey League that exists today.

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Gary Bettman

The NHL was under pressure as a tendency was beginning to form, where so-called “goons” started going after the league’s star players and in 1992, in an attempt to deter such behaviours, the instigator penalty was implemented as follows: “A player deemed to be the instigator of fisticuffs shall be assessed a Game Misconduct.”

Bettman, concerned that fighting was a key factor preventing some non-traditional fans and major TV networks from following the game so in 1996, he managed to convince the Governors that in order to progress, they needed to further reduce the number of fights and blood sheds in the league. That’s when they adjusted the rule to what it is today, by levying a two-minute minor, a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct to the guilty party.

Let the rats run free

Since then, the NHL has been trying hard to better police cheap shots. They’ve implemented several new rules in an attempt to give the league’s prefects of discipline better tools to punish cheap shot artists, whether it be with fines and/or suspensions. They have been hiring former players, guys who understand the game and who know the differences between intents from incidents, to help bring accountability to players’ actions on the ice. Force is to admit that the results are lamentable. People realise that even with all good intentions, it is impossible to have the necessary consistency needed to be effective, as each action, while similar in nature, is different.

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Andrew Shaw

The NHL has always had players who liked to walk the fine line, and over go over it. It always had players giving cheap shots. The “rats”, as they were called, were present in old time hockey. But those players knew well in advance that retribution could be coming so if they took a shot at someone, it wasn’t without knowing what could – or likely would – be coming their way, well beyond a possible penalty from the referee.

Since the application of the instigator rule however, the rats run free. They know that retribution won’t be coming their way from other players, particularly in close games. Worse, the rats have multiplied for that reason. Imagine if New York city decided to implement a bylaw stating that it’s now illegal to kill rats within city limits and if you got caught doing so, you would be heavily fined! That’s what the NHL has done with the instigator rule.

“If you want a game where guys can cheap shot people and not face retribution, I’m not sure that’s a healthy evolution. The speed of the game, I love how the game’s evolved in terms of how it’s played. But you’re seeing where there is no accountability, this is the byproduct.”

“To me, it’s a dangerous turn in our game. These guys that won’t back it up, won’t drop their gloves, run around and elbow people in the head and hit people from behind. They never have to answer for that in the game, they used to have to answer for that in the game. You see guys that run around and start stuff and won’t back it up and it makes me sick to my stomach.” ~ Brian Burke, January 2012

We’re seeing more and more examples of what Burke is referring to and we had yet another example during the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils’ game. On the Devils’ first goal, Adam Henrique clearly charged on Carey Price, pushing him into his net. After review, the league allowed the goal. Later in the game, Kyle Palmieri went around Habs’ defenseman Jeff Petry and “accidently on purpose” slid into Price, taking him out of his net. Price, the former NHL MVP and multiple awards winner, had missed pretty much all season rehabbing an injured knee and that move by Palmieri was the last drop in the bucket. Since the league won’t defend the goaltenders, he took it upon himself to send a message.

The instigator rule draws the ire of some players, the praise of others. It receives simultaneous credit for cleaning up the game and criticism for failing to allow players to police themselves. But even with the best intentions, the league simply cannot do all of the policing. The refereeing is terribly inconsistent, the application of the rules is extremely muddy, and players are growing more and more frustrated as it is ultimately their health and livelihood that is put in jeopardy.

What now?

The NHL, unfortunately, has made its own bed with this one. It is very  unlikely that we will see the league amend that rule at this point and that, for a couple of reasons. First, we live in a world where political correctness is more important than the end results. Lawyers (and Bettman is one) would be all over the NHL and the NHLPA at the first incident where a player got injured in a fight, whether it be concussion or other injuries, if they removed or even amended the instigator rule. Second, it would be an admission of failure by the NHL and egos are huge in the sport, with the Commissioner and the Board of Directors included. Me, wrong? It can’t be!

A way around it would be a slight adjustment to the rules, or a major change in the application of it by the referees. That, however, would also be a very slippery slope as if it came into a court of law and a referee was asked as a witness, they would have to tell the truth about the directives they were given. No matter what pundits want to claim, there was – and there still is – a purpose for fighting in the NHL.

In the meantime, we will continue watching a league run by rats, with perhaps the biggest one running it.