We all know how controversial the topic of fighting is in the NHL. This isn't going to be a post taking a side in the debate but instead will be a brief discussion on the instigator penalty - a topic that typically seems to get lost in the topic of fighting.
The great folks over at Puck Daddy posted a fascinating article about how NHL players aren't supporting the instigator penalty as strongly as they had in the past. In a recent survey featuring 257 NHLPA participants, it became clear that support of the instigator rule is slipping. Is this a sign that the instigator penalty might be changing in the near future?
For the full article on this topic, head on over and check out Greg Wyshynki's piece.
The NHLPA survey asked very directly to its 257 respondents "Should the instigator rule be abolished?". First, it's important to note that this isn't the first time the NHLPA has been asked such a question. The very same question was featured on a survey last season with 66% of players being in favor of the instigator rule. However, jump ahead to the present and you'll find that only 53% are currently in favor of the instigator rule.
In case you're not familiar, the instigator penalty was brought to action in the 1992-93 season and would give a player a 2-minute penalty and a 10-minute misconduct in addition to the regular 5-minute fighting major if he was deemed to have gone out of his way to start a fight.
In theory, the instigator rule is a solid one. However, it has some unintended consequences that are becoming more and more of an issue as the typical "enforcer" in hockey has become more of a rarity.
The NHL has typically been a league that is policed by its players. Throw a dirty hit? Be prepared to lose the mitts the next time you hit the ice. This idea of teammates sticking up for each other kept dirty play to a minimum as the guilty party knew he would have to pay for his actions. However, in the era of the instigator penalty, these dirty hits typically go unpunished. Yes, Brendan Shanahan is there to "review" all dirty hits but he alone isn't capable of taking dirty play out of the game. He can't catch every play and even when he does review a situation his punishments have been all over the map and lacking any consistency that might cause a dirty player to think twice before throwing an elbow or initiating a hit with his knee.
Simply, the game must go back to being policed by the players themselves - no one knows that game better. Currently, a player can get away with a dirty hit as he knows if the other team comes gunning for him that his squad will enjoy a power-play and the headhunter will be sidelined with 17 minutes worth of penalties. Currently, there's very little in the form of repercussions that would enter the guilty party's head before throwing said dirty hit.
The Puck Daddy article includes a telling quote from Toronto's GM Brian Burke. Burke states that as the enforcer role in the NHL disappears, the rats will take over the game. His concern is that when the players aren't allowed to protect one another that dirty players won't be held accountable for their actions and that cheap shots will rise. Honestly, it's tough to argue against his fear.
The NHL has made it clear it wants to eliminate dirty hits, specifically hits to the head, in the modern NHL. Unfortunately, the current system they use leaves more questions than answers. Concussions are caused by elbows to the head and by dangerous hits along the boards. Rarely are they caused through fighting. The NHL should abandon the instigator rule and allow the players to police themselves by holding players accountable for their actions on the ice. Throw a dirty hit? Get ready to fight.
Clearly, the players used in this survey are shifting to this mindset - quickly. In a matter of a season the vote has shifted by 13%. In another year's time we might see that the side opposing the instigator rule as the new majority. The NHL would be wise to listen to their players and consider dropping the instigator rule. Ironically, we might all see a safer, cleaner NHL if players are allowed to defend their teammates through fighting.
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The instigator is one of those rules that feels like it was put in just so the league could hand out some more penalty minutes. Especially at the time of its inception, when the guy taking it was highly likely to be a fourth line guy whose job was to generate some energy and stick up for his guys. Now, of course, the league has changed. If it's not king yet, the roll four lines strategy, where even the energy line needs to be capable of at least some offensive zone pressure, is much more the way of the game, and losing any player for nearly a full period is a disadvantage disproportionately compared to the game of twenty years ago.
What I think this really comes back to, though, is the issue of questionable officiating in general. Never quite knowing what's going to get called is an awful spot to be in, especially for a team that needs to stick up for itself after a dirty play by the other side, whether it got called initially or not. Missed calls, blown calls, and, of course, my personal favorite (two minutes for high sticking?) the phantom even-up roughing call.
Fairly certain that I've said this elsewhere, but it would be okay if the refs wanted to call everything by the book, as long as they called it evenly. Or it would be okay if they wanted to let everything but the really egregious stuff go, and let the players take care of the minor stuff of their own accord, as long as they called it evenly. Instead, we get variance from one reffing crew to another, or even one period to another. If the refs want to control the game, that's fine, as long as they're consistent, or they can let the players police the game, under the same stipulation. This whole reffing by halves thing just isn't working, and it's made for some ugly games. (2012 Winter Classic, anyone?)