Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Magical Time Before The Instigator Rule

During HNIC’s Coach’s Corner on April 21st, Don Cherry, who has not coached in over 30 years, called for the removal of the instigator rule (Rule 46.11).  He was making the point that players should be policing the game, adding, “You can’t have a mad dog sitting on the bench.”   Even though he stated, “I know you can’t go back,” it was clear that he wanted a return to the good old days.

Let’s be clear – Don Cherry is far closer to an entertainer than a hockey expert.  His experience as a coach (6 years, from 1974 to 1980) was during the heyday of the Broad Street Bullies and during a period when every team was adding toughness in the form of fighters.  He was successful in Boston with four 1st place finishes in 5 years and won Coach of the Year honours in 1976.  Cherry remade the team with enforcers and grinders which became known as the "lunch-pail gang“.  Cherry finished his coaching career with the Colorado Rockies in 1979-1980 and during that season the Rockies posted their new motto on billboards all over Denver, "Come to the fights and watch a Rockies game break out!"  In 1980 he did color commentary during the playoffs for CBC and joined them full time the next year.  His role on Coach’s Corner was to be opinionated, not provide in-depth analysis.  If you have watched him for 30 years, as I have, you would have noticed that as the game changed and evolved his opinions remain rooted in the period when he played and coached. So let’s look at that magical period of hockey before the instigator rule was implemented in 1992, starting with an article from The Leafs Nation (where I stole the title for this post).  Jonathan Willis did a Google search on “NHL cheap shots” and got 29 pages of results.  The entire article – The Magical Time Before The Instigator Rule – included several videos and had this conclusion:
Players policing themselves doesn’t work. There’s a long, long, long track record proving that very thing. People who say otherwise are only fooling themselves.

Another blog – Violence in Hockey – covers the concussion issue and makes several good points regarding the instigator rule:

An unfortunately large number of people involved in the game as well as fans see the instigator rule as the cause for the recent “concussion epidemic”; they argue that enforcers keep others in line and reduce the number of dirty hits.  This may make sense if you have never seen a game or highlight reel of “hockey plays” from the 80s and early 90s, where line brawls and bone crushing blindside hits were not only common but accepted as part of the game.  Ask Eric Lindros whether his teammates protected him from Scott Stevens.  Not to mention that this attitude neglects the health and safety of the enforcers–who fought at a much higher frequency then than they do today.

Then we have an article by Stu Hackel – Cherry’s Distortions Paint False Picture – that discusses a Coaches Corner segment on violence in the first round of this year’s playoffs.

It was vintage Cherry, filled with half-truths, distortions and deceptions, all calculated to counteract the rising anger among fans against what they have seen. His main points sort of even sound sensible — until you really think about them.

I have no doubt Don Cherry will continue his holy crusade to keep hockey what it was when he was a coach. The fact that it was 30 years ago and things have changed enormously since then doesn’t matter. He’s a man stuck in the past and he’s not above oversimplifying or even falsifying things if it suits his purposes. He’s not about to speak against the kind of hockey that has made him a household name and a hugely wealthy man.

This year’s HNIC Player’s Poll has given new life to those fans who want to see the Instigator rule removed.  The survey showed that 53 percent favor keeping it, which is a decline from 66 in favor last year.  Many see this as evidence that the players are softening on the issue.  Another article by Stu Hackel - Flaws clear in NHLPA-Hockey Night Poll – highlighted several problems with the survey, in particular with the question on the instigator rule.

But the simple yes or no posing of the question belies some of the complexities involved in the rule.

The whole discussion of the rule (which allows for a minor, major and 10-minute misconduct, as well as a suspension for accumulating three instigator infractions), revolves around the aspect of the penalty that punishes players for avenging previous wrongs. If a player cheap-shots an opponent, the accepted brand of NHL frontier justice is that the cheap shot artist should be made to pay  — and not just by being penalized and perhaps suspended by the league, but by being physically attacked by the victim’s team.

But that’s only part of the instigator rule. It’s not the reason the rule came into being in the first place and the question is framed to call for the end of the rule as a whole.

As we’ve written before, the genesis of the instigator is in the 1970s, the NHL’s darkest hours (and the legacy of that time is still being felt today). It prohibited a team from sending its goons out to engage an opponent’s star player for the purpose of getting him off the ice, if not just beating him up and injuring him.  Get rid of the instigator rule and you run the very real risk of inviting that thug mentality back into the game.

Stu Hackel is a well-respected journalist, one who has been around long enough to provide personal observations on the game before and after 1992.  Let’s hear from him again referencing one of his articles from 2008 – Why The Instigator Rule Must Stay.  In it he makes several excellent points and includes examples, including videos, of why the rule is still important.   All of these support his argument.

What’s that you say?  The instigation rule prevents teams from protecting their best players? That’s garbage. The rule protects the best players. Get rid of it, and you put them and the game in danger. Get rid of it and run the very real risk of the ’70s madness returning, of goons and antagonists targeting the game’s stars. What would prevent it?

That is what the instigation rule is about. The rule has been tweaked over time to add clauses about players with visors who initiate fisticuffs and altering the penalties, but in essence it is designed to keep the game from getting out of control.

Some argue that the media doesn’t have the experience to judge the instigator rule, despite the fact that they watch close to 100 games a year, year after year, from a vantage point that most of us will never have.  So how about the opinion of Kerry Fraser, a respected former referee who now writes a column for TSN.

From – Instigator Rule All But Lost:

The spirit of the rule and for sure the language of it is all but lost. "Rule 46.11; 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."

Even though it is not written in the language of the rule it is my understanding that some of the new criteria utilized by the referees in applying the instigator rule are "if a fair fight resulted".  If that is any part of the determination then the instigator rule is certainly obsolete the way it is written.

From – Would Removing the Instigator Penalty Curb Headshots?

The suggestion that we reacquire the prototype “6'5” goon” that takes up a roster spot on the end of the bench to go out and fight his counterpart on the other side when liberties are taken is preposterous. How would this reduce head shots? Two monster gladiators banging each other in the head repeatedly during a staged fight until one submits, is knocked unconscious or they fall to the ice, can only have grave repercussions to the combatants brain grey matter.

From – Was There An Instigator in Phaneuf-Clarkson Fight?

There have been 791 fighting majors assessed to this point in the NHL season. An instigator has been identified just 30 times and assessed a penalty under Rule 46.11.

I have seen several fights this season where an obvious instigator was not penalized under this rule. For some reason, the referees are avoiding making this call. In years past, there have been times when the call was made and the misconduct rescinded after a team requested a review of the play by Hockey Operations. No referee enjoys having a penalty call rescinded. That also sends a message to the refs not to call it.

If a referee feels he missed an infraction he might find it unfair to assess an instigator penalty to a player that settles the score. While I can understand the philosophy, two wrongs don't make it right.

Much debate has been made about removing the instigator penalty to allow player policing on dirty hits. While the rule still appears in the book, as far as I can determine, it has all but been removed in the practical application.

I’m hoping that any committee that reviews the instigator rule is made up of league historians and veterans who remember how violent the game was in the 70’s and 80’s.   Whenever there is a particularly vicious hit, like Torres on Hossa, there is a howl from coaches about allowing players to police the game.  An increase in revenge and violence is not the answer.  However the NHL has to do a comprehensive review of their penalty system and disciplinary process.   Fix the consistency issue in how the game is refereed – a penalty mid-season is a penalty in overtime of game 7 in the playoffs.  Implement strict guidelines on suspensions so players understand what actions result in 1, 3 or 25 games.  That is a bigger problem than the instigator rule, as pointed out by Damien Cox in his post – NHL Justice System Needs Total Overhaul:

What’s needed, folks, is an overhaul of the entire disciplinary machinery of the NHL, which is basically operating the same way it was a half-century ago, with one man sitting in an office making arbitrary choices.

No minimums. No maximums. No significant ability to fine players. No role for the NHL Players’ Association. No relation between the foul and the injury caused by the foul. No sanctions for usurping the role of NHL authorities and taking justice into one’s own hands. No agreement between owners and players as to what the rules of the game should look like and how the safety of players can best be maintained. No meaningful appeal process. Little or no consideration of the impact on the victim.

Just a guy in an office picking a number. Or no number at all.

NHLPA anonymous polls are fine for entertainment, but none of those surveyed played in the late 1980’s when retribution was common.   Younger fans are too busy to research why the rule was introduced and appear to listen to players and coaches who are upset that their “mad dog” must remain chained to the bench, instead of exacting revenge.  Perhaps those who love fighting, more than the game itself, simply want a return to the days when there were a lot more videos on the fight sites every morning.   And I’m continually amazed that some hockey fans of my generation, that watched a lot of hockey in the 70’ and 80’s, fondly remember it as being a cleaner and safer game.  As demonstrated above, nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s give Leafs GM Brian Burke the final quote.  When asked at a recent NHL winter meeting about removing the contentious rule, here is what he had to say.  “We’re stuck with the instigator rule.  We take the instigator rule out and we’re back to three-hour games. Nobody wants that.


List of links referenced in this post:

The Magical Time Before The Instigator Rule

Violence in Hockey

Cherry’s Distortions Paint False Picture

Flaws Clear in NHLPA Hockey Night Poll

Why the Instigator Rule Must Stay

NHL Justice System Needs Total Overhaul

1 comment:

  1. Ridiculous to suggest the 70s were the "darkest hours". Some of the games greatest players played then, some of the greatest games were played then.