Monday, November 26, 2007

Instigating change

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.
— Rule 56, Fisticuffs
No other sport has a rulebook that reads quite like hockey's, and "instigator" has been a part of that lexicon since the 1970s. It was put into the rule book in its current form by general managers in 1992-93, and a two-minute option for referees was added in 1996-97.

And we've been arguing about it every since.

Here's a word from NHL vice-president of hockey operations Mike Murphy:
The instigator "curbs player behavior away from brawling, and this league can't afford to have brawling. The games are too long already. You start opening the doors to players fighting whenever they want and you encourage brawling, and we don't want to encourage brawling."
Now that was in May, 2002 — but it's safe to bet, as Tom Benjamin points out, that the league feels the same way. Brawling embarrasses the league, and eliminating it was one of the main aims behind the rule to begin with.

I can't see that changing, regardless of what happens with the competition committee. What we may see is a shifting of the rule, an elimination of the mandatory suspension after three of the penalties, or something similar.

But I disagree with Tom when he says this is "the last thing Gary Bettman wants to see." My guess is that, after two and a half years with a completely dysfunctional — and for all intents and purposes useless — players' association, the commish is just fine with the fact the very first order of business for Paul Kelly and Eric Lindros is wading into this old, essentially unwinnable instigator tiff.

In the grand scheme of things, there are far more prickly subjects the union could be broaching — player safety, the definition of hockey-related revenues, marketing the stars, improving television coverage and media attention — instead of chasing down a relatively minor rule change. (The board of governors isn't going to be all that concerned, relatively speaking, if there's a sudden push for their employees to punch each other in the head more often.)

In any event, Tom does ask the right questions when he says: "Does anyone believe a Robyn Regehr is afraid to fight? Does anyone believe he would let up on Ales Hemsky because plowing the star will draw a response from an Oiler tough guy?"

  • As an aside, the instigator rule has all kinds of wacky provisions in it, like this one: "If a player penalized as an instigator of an altercation is wearing a face shield, he shall be assessed an additional Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty."

    Only in the NHL.



At 3:06 a.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger Steve Patterson said...

i don't play in the nhl, and i know most journalists don't play in the nhl. this is why i always find it curious when journalists claim that removing the instigator rule from the books would have no effect on the game, when the exact opposite view is expressed by a near unanimity percentage of the players.

i think the effect of re-instituting the instigator would be to neutralize a phenomenon that has become even more dangerous than the "goon"...namely, the "agitator." recently, as a canucks fan, i've seen our "agitator", matt cooke, give two separate players concussions in the past month from hits from behind. tonight it happened again, where he sent james wisniewski bleeding to the locker room. he was later challenged to a fight, where he declined to take the offer. had there been no instigator, it's probable that he would have had no choice but to be accountable for his actions.

it's true that in the pre-instigator era, agitators existed, as people that remember players like ken linesman, claude lemieux, or esa tikkanen will remember. but the amount of agitators that exist in the game now, combined with the cowardly and lethal effect they are having on player's careers, cries for the instigator to be removed.

with the reghyr example, perhaps it's true that he's not afraid to fight. but the removal of the rule is not for him. it's for players that routinely take liberties with the opposition and receive no accountability for their actions. it's not about making the game 'safer''s about re-instituting a sense of accountability back into the consciousness of the players, something that the players desire more than any other group right now.

At 3:56 a.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger Vik said...

I think the Regehr example is a terrible one. I absolutely think he'd let up. Not that I think he's afraid of having Stortini hug him into submission but because after dropping the gloves, he'll be in the box for better than 5 minutes with Storts. That's basically two pluses for the Oilers (Regehr not playing, Stortini not playing) and would likely result in the Flames having to use Anders Eriksson or David Hale more with how brittle Warrener is.

At 7:07 a.m., November 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But what if Regehr runs Hemsky through the boards, Stortini challenges him to a fight, and he doesn't respond? Stortini might be in the box for two minutes for roughing and the Oilers have to kill a penalty, and Hemsky is still liable to get smushed again.

I agree that this is far from the most irritating issue the players could bring up. I'd like to see them go into safety issues, especially regarding concussions, and the disability payments due to injured players and see how much the owners squirm if they are expected not to treat their emplyees as disposable quantities.

At 8:04 a.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger lralle said...

"As an aside, the instigator rule has all kinds of wacky provisions in it, like this one: 'If a player penalized as an instigator of an altercation is wearing a face shield, he shall be assessed an additional Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty.'"

This actually happened in the Caps/Flyers game the other night. Chris Clark instigated a fight with Scott Hartnell, who also wears a shield, and got two minors in addition to the instigation majors. It took awhile for the announcers to explain the rule, which makes sense, i guess.
but what if clark had taken off his helmet?
what if clark instigated the fight and removed his helmet, but hartnell made no attempt to remove his?

At 8:29 a.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger FAUX RUMORS said...

1) Steve makes some excellent points about how the newer Instigator rules may have had an unintended consequence to squelch the 'natural' policing of the players BY the players
2) In years past one could expect a response if he committed a questionable hit, etc. Nowadays it can be too costly to do so. Thus one of the reasons we see an increase in the number of cheap/dirty hits
3) BTW, the morons at the NHL offices need to realize that fighting sells! The limp wristed minority can go watch figure skating. The folks who already dislike hockey won't suddenly flock to see it if fighting were banned. So why alienate those of us (real fans) who are the ones who support the game/pay the bills!?!
4) There should be NO instigator rule at all. In years past if the ref thought one guy blatently started a fight he'd get 2 extra minutes for roughing. End of story.

At 8:45 a.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger Sig said...

I wrote this over at Kuklas when you posted an instigator article; but I will write it here again because people lose site on what is important.

Every fan poll that has come out about the instigator says that the overwhelming majority of fans want it gone. The NHLPA player's poll last year said that the overwhelming majority of players want it gone as well. last year, General managers, most former players, recommended the bumping up the number of instigators before a player is suspended to five games. The Board of Governors (owners) narrowly voted it down (that information I received directly from Ted Leonsis, who voted for the rule change).

This is very close to happening. It is a top agenda for the Player's Association... and it should be.

This is a direct response to the NHL's inability and inconsistency in policing the game. Players are not punished the same way for the same cheap hits. The players want an opporunity to take care of business themselves. The NHL has shown that they are not the deterence that they want to be.

This will NOT lead to brawls. Players still cannot come off the bench. This MAY lead to the occasional line brawl. But since when did fans start disliking the occasional line brawl?

The only "fans" that dislike it are yuppie writers, like Damien Cox, that are speaking for the overwhelming MINORITY of hockey fans that dislike fighting in general. These are the same writers that have been screaming that a death will happen in a fight for the past ten years.

Enough is enough. The NHL should take a shot at removing the instigator. You still have to be able to play in the NHL. This will not lead to goonery. It will lead to accountability. And even the tough guys have to be accountable as they are the ones that take it upon themselves to put their teams at a disadvantage for five minutes.

And one more subjective comment... it will make the game a hecht of a lot more watchable for a segment of fans that have missed passionate, emotion-filled hockey. And dare I say rivalries might make a comeback? My word.

At 9:12 a.m., November 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't believe removing the instigator rule or changes to it to allow players to "police themselves" will work, but of course that's just my opinion and I seem to be in the minority.

It really doesn't matter what the fans want, because if there's one thing the NHL has done consistently over the decades, it's ignoring the fans.

Ultimately if the majority of players, GMs and owners are for changing or eliminating that rule then so be it.

Perhaps it would be best to address this once and for all in order for the PA to address those more important issues you raised, James. It might also be a good test for Kelly and Lindros, a way of easing into their new roles.

At 9:22 a.m., November 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question should be: does the instigator rule help protect players or not? The history of the game has shown that letting players police themselves works. There is more stickwork and dirty hits today than ever before, and as a result of the new rules and associated fines, many players simply aren't afraid to throw dirty hits as they are rarely punished for their effort. Just get real, hockey is a tough, emotional game, and trying to appeal to soccer moms isn't what the NHL should be doing.

At 9:42 a.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger saskhab said...

The question should be: does the instigator rule help protect players or not? The history of the game has shown that letting players police themselves works. There is more stickwork and dirty hits today than ever before, and as a result of the new rules and associated fines, many players simply aren't afraid to throw dirty hits as they are rarely punished for their effort.

Please tell me where the "history of the game tells us" that players policing themselves works? And please look up some incidents in hockey history to back up the apparent fact that there are more dirty hits/stickwork than there was in the past.

The history of the NHL is littered with stick-swinging incidents, gross misconducts, line brawls, cheap elbows, hits from behind, etc. Several of these such incidents have been celebrated (Clarke's slash on Kharlamov was very celebrated at the time, for example).

The age of cable TV, highlight packages, NHL Centre Ice, and the internet have made it appear the game is uglier now than ever. Reality suggests this is not the case.

At 11:36 a.m., November 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kinda beside the point, but Tom's question at the end of your post assumes Edmonton even has a tough guy. Huggybear got beat up by Owen freaking Nolan. He certainly is not going to scare the likes of a Regehr.

And while I don't see a use for the instigator, I do agree with Lyle that removing it will not have the intended effect. It never will until the NHLPA addresses what should be the key focus for the union right now: respect amongst players.

The union itself needs to take a leadership role in dealing with the kind of cheapshots that we are seeing lately, and in growing numbers. Without the help of the union, all the league can do is punish players after the fact and hope that the suspension will prove a deterrant.

At 1:27 p.m., November 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to instigate something with the maroon who introduced the word "accountability" into the discussion.

It is nothing but a cover. A charade. This entire discussion is repulsive in its disingenuousness.

At 2:01 p.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger Steve Patterson said...

"repulsive in its disingenuousness."

care to elaborate?

where do you think accountability is going to come from other than the players on the ice? the nhl head office? they can hand out suspension after suspension if they want to (and they have been recently) my knowledge that hasn't changed a thing. the referees? what's the message when phantom hooks and slashes are called repeatedly while hits to the head are left uncalled.

hockey is a violent sport with a context that makes it unique from other sports. infractions for fighting, instigating, the abstract, admittingly, are bizzare, unless you attach it to the culture of the game that has developed for over a century. if you are repulsed and sickened by that culture, then perhaps hockey is the wrong sport to follow.

as an aside, anybody who is "repulsed" by the game today should take a look at tapes during the "golden eras" of hockey during the 50s or the 80s when acts of violence on the ice were tens times as common as they were today.

At 2:50 p.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger Art Vandelay said...

Do I have this argument correct? The instigator penalty prevents me from tuning Matt Cooke for being a cheapshotting punk?

Get real. If some no-talent j@gov runs my star teammate through the boards, I'm going to let a 2-minute minor deter me from sending him to the dentist's chair?

Cooke gets away with his nonsense for two reasons: 1. his flying elbow smashes are now part of the hockey fabric and therefore get delivered without fear of on-ice retribution. 2. The NHL either doesn't care about the health and safety of its players and/or thinks flying elbow smashes sell tickets and therefore does not punish these hits in a way that makes sense to anyone with a working brain pan.

The solution to on-ice mayhem is a forceful hand from the league office. Suspending Downie and Boulerice was easy. It would have taken guts to suspend Randy Jones for 40 games for nearly ending P Bergeron's life. Or suspend Cooke for 20 every time he tries to insert an opponent's face into the plexiglass.

Put enough NHL regulars in the pressbox for violent hits and, like the crackdown on obstruction, the players would adjust.
No need to have some knuckle-dragging neanderthal sloshing around the ice looking to 'police' the game.

As for the canard that fighting sells. There is as much evidence backing that claim as there is my contention that a fast & clean game would sell as well or better. That is to say, no evidence whatsoever.

But I do know that the NFL is about as powerful and rich as ancient Rome and players get ejected for what amounts to aggressive head touching. MLB pitchers get ejected for throwing the ball too close to an opponent's head, with or without contact. Last year that league's online revenues alone were $6 billion.

Then we have the NHL which, on the evolutionary scale, is stuck somewhere in the protean muck, and has gone from the nominal No. 4 slot to barely clinging to the Top 100 outside of Canada.

At 3:19 p.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger Steve Patterson said...

a few points on that:

a) yes, it is not proven that cheap shot artists would be neutralized if the instigator is removed. but it is equally unproven that suspensions would do this. big suspensions worked so well to the philadelphia flyers that both jesse boulerice and randy jones decided that they wouldn't really care what the nhl head office had to say. i think a combination of the removal of the rule + tougher suspension = less dangerous play. there is only so much the nhl can do from the office. they suspended mcsorely and bertuzzi for incidents so bad they warranted criminal charges from the vancouver police, but it hasn't seemed to sink in with the players yet. perhaps their solution, ie: removal of the rule, would give them a daily instead of a monthly or yearly reminder.

b) did you really just claim that violence in the nfl is not part of their popularity? sure, there is no fighting due to the impossibility of punching on facemasks. but there are multiple players injured every game in that league from big hits and borderline hits. it is true that there has never been a scientific study that fighting sells. all we have to go on are polls that routinely say close to 90% of hockey fans want fighting as part of the game. the only "rivalries" that exist today in the nhl are ones from which there is the possibility of an altercation in the next game, and even that is rare nowadays.

c) the nhl may be a declining sport, but fighting is the least of their fact, it can easily be argued that a decline in fighting over the past decade corresponds with a decline in the popularity in the sport, just as easily as an argument can be made that fighting limits the sports popularity. i'm not going to make that argument, i'm just pointing out that the arguments can be made and there is only empirical evidence to back it up. to be honest, it's the loss of espn and the impact of the lockout that did more to kill the game than anything else.

d) it is true that nothing will change players like matt cooke. they are what they are. i'm just saying that the instigator rule makes their job much easier than it should be. the fact that every team now employs a few of these "agitators," that this rise not only corresponds with the implementation of the rule but also with the increase in serious injuries in a era when violence in the nhl is at an all-time low, suggests that it's a suggestion worth trying if there is near unanimity from the players on the issue.

At 10:14 p.m., November 26, 2007, Blogger Art Vandelay said...

Good points.

What if ticky-tack stuff was a 2-minute penalty and anything involving malice like a slash, flying elbow, intentional high stick, etc., was 5 and a game?
If a hit went well over the line, as with the latest Flyer atrocity, start at 10 games and go from there.

At the very least, teams will get sick of killing 5-minute penalties and wasting cap space on a guy who sits for 10 games at a stretch. It won't happen overnight, but teams would adjust.

I just haven't seen a defensible argument for why violence should be met with more violence. Or, more to today's point, how a lousy 2-minute penalty is a significant barrier to exacting revenge on a cheapshotter if that's really what a team wants to do.

As for the NFL, I didn't make that point well. I guess what I'd say is that football fans enjoy the hitting. They might even express a preference if polled that defenders be allowed to body slam QBs. But the league is a lot smarter than its players AND its fans, and wisely bans head shots.

I'd respect the NHL if it recognized that Patrice Bergeron is a sublime talent to be protected. I fear that light bulb might come on too late, in this particular case.

At 1:01 p.m., November 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"repulsive in its disingenuousness."

care to elaborate?

I am happy to, Steve. Firstly, I would suggest that you read my post a little more carefully. You reference being repulsed by the culture and then by the game.

I did not say that. Steve, I suspect that i am somewhat older than you, and consequently I probably have watched hockey (40 years, BTW) for a fair bit longer. I am quite familiar with how hockey was played in eras previous to the current one.

As per your quote above, I am repulsed by the disingenuousness of the DISCUSSION. While I use big words for a living, I am disgusted by the more recent predilection of hockey fans to couch this entire discussion in terms of "accountability" or derivations thereof.

It is utter bullS***. As you yourself pointed out, violence abounded in previous eras. There was no instigator penalty in those eras. Ergo, there is no evidence whatsoever that the removal of the instigator penalty will reduce violent acts. In fact, as your own statement indicates, the reverse is true.

As other posts after your own point out quite aptly, there is no point at which a player goes through the mental calculus (assuming they are capable of doing so) to think about the presence of the instigator penalty. Furthermore, the very fact that instigator penalties are in fact levied is a clear indication that any cheapshot artist still must be required to assume that he will be physically challenged.

That being said, even without the immediate physical fight challenge, does anyone actually think that guys who lay cheapshots are not subsequently responded to, albeit in a million more subtle ways? If you watch any game, or better yet if you have played, you should know that there are countless ways to get back at a guy that are far more subtle than dropping the gloves and are far more effective in that they frequently go unpenalized. NHL hockey is much like the NFL in one respect: on any given play, you could call a half dozen penalties. One could in fact make a pretty good case that dropping the gloves is one of the least effective means of retribution.

When I say i am revolted by the disingenuousness, what i am saying (since you fanned on the puck in terms of my original point), the disingenuousness that I am talking about is that of the fans who throw that word around. IMO, they do not care about guys getting their comeuppance after a cheapshot. What they want to see are more fights, plain and simple. The instigator penalty does not impact on violent acts, but it certainly does cut down on fighting. the original purpose of the rule was to stop goons from going around picking fights to take more effective players off the ice. The intimidation factor was also there, for those teams that had top-level heavyweights who could beat jsut about anyone. The NHL decided that intimidation is okay, but it should take the form of teams who can hit harder and more often, as opposed to teams who had a few guys that could beat the hell out of guys with their fists.

Whether you like hockey fights or not, it is more than pathetic for people who do to cloak their preference in words like "accountability". It is patently dishonest. If one likes a hockey fight as part of their game, they should simply come out and say it and have the debate honestly. "Accountability" is but a pathetic mask.

At 6:36 p.m., November 28, 2007, Blogger Steve Patterson said...

if "accountability" is a pathetic mask then you shouldn't be getting mad at me who has only played hockey at an amateur level...get mad at professional players because they're the ones from which the term comes from. lack of respect for the opponent's safety is a player created problem and frankly the only way it can fixed is a player instituted solution, and if this is their solution (and one i agree with, in the absence of any better solutions to the contrary) then i say let them have it. i'm sorry you are so repulsed by the discussion, what else can i say other than i disagree with pretty much everything you just said.

At 12:14 p.m., November 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I respect your right to be completely misguided.


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