Sunday, September 27, 2009

As fighting increases, so will refs' use of the instigator rule

As Damien Cox pointed out last week, the "sweeping changes" concerning fighting that many expected after the death of Whitby Dunlops defenseman Don Sanderson last season never came to pass. The NHL's general managers supported an extra 10-minute misconduct penalty for staged fights, but the NHLPA's lack of support meant it would have never make it through the competition committee.

The Toronto Star recently confronted players on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who clearly have muscled-up in the offseason, about the rise in fighting and the NHLPA's decision not to attempt to quell it:

Cox pointed out that exhibition games this fall have averaged two fights, with the Leafs averaging four fights per game. "Everybody agrees on the players' side that fighting is part of the game. That's where we stand," said Matt Stajan(notes), the Leafs' NHLPA rep. "The whole staged fighting (issue), we don't believe it happens the way people think."

Rather than cut back on the need for enforcers - and a decline in fighting that would trickle down to the junior ranks - a team like Toronto is adding more muscle as it attempts to fight, literally, its way back into a playoff spot.

The "trickle-down goon decline" theory is flawed. If fighting opponents want to see its frequency severely decline -- keeping in mind that fighting will never truly "leave the game" -- then it needs to trickle up. It'll take a cultural shift in every level of hockey in North America; a fundamental, generational change that can't be artificially expedited by draconian measures in the NHL alone. (Not that it's a change we're eager to witness.)

As the NHLPA's decision not to support the staged fighting rule shows: It's up to the players.

If staged fighting hasn't been addressed, it appears the current scourge of the NHL -- fights after clean hits -- will be dealt with by more consistent enforcement of the instigator rule.

According to new NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson, the instigator will be enforced more often.

From the Canadian Press (via Kukla):

Gregson said it should be called more, particularly in cases where a player is clearly retaliating for a hit on himself or a teammate by calling an opponent out for a fight. "Now, even when there are clean hits, there seems to be retaliation going on," he said.

Granted, there needs to be some respect for the Code; we still say Dion Phaneuf(notes) should have answered for taking out a top-six forward on the New York Islanders in a preseason game.

But the constant, misguided retribution of fights after good hits was an infuriating trend last season, and the offending parties sometimes wouldn't be assessed an instigator for their rather blatant actions.

It's a welcome change, as long as enforcement of the instigator doesn't go overboard.

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