September 17th, 2002


Charlton's NHL

Investigating Instigation

AP Photo

Fisticuffs Not all skill players take a back seat

by Rick Charlton

It was the legendary Conn Smythe who once provided the most intuitive analysis of hockey's love/hate relationship with fighting.

"We've got to stamp out fighting - or people are going to keep on buying tickets," the Leaf legend once opined, believing fighting is at once a cruel and popular spectacle, but also a necessary aspect of the sport.

Former Flyers coach Fred Shero, speaking in the mid-1970's, agreed.

"Fighting is part of the game," said Shero. "It's the human element in hockey and you can't control it. That's what makes the game exciting."

Through the years, others would argue differently.

''Anger and frustration can be released within the rules, by skating faster, by shooting harder, by doing relentless, dogged violence on an opponent's mind.," argued former Canadiens great Ken Dryden in his book The Game in the early 1980's. "If Freud was right and anger released is anger spent, then a right hook given is a body check missed, and by permitting fighting, the NHL discourages determined, inspired play as retaliation.''

The NHL has been trying for decades to find the right balance between unnecessary violence and the need to counteract even greater acts of mayhem through on-ice self-regulation, all the while implicitly acknowledging fighting is a part of the spectacle which attracts fans to the rink.

The current version of the Instigator Rule, introduced in time for the 1992-93 season and designed to curb excess fighting, is probably the single on-ice regulation which curries the least favour from the current 693 roster players in the NHL.

The rule was introduced following five consecutive years where the NHL produced more than 30 players exceeding 200 penalty minutes each.

Yet those currently employed in the NHL will argue long and hard the NHL game has become more dangerous today because the ability to self-regulate has been taken from the game. Those responsible for even greater acts of violence than fighting need to be accountable for their actions say the critics.

"To have the ability to fight takes away lots of stick work and other violent things in the game," Paul Kariya said two years ago. "So if you took the ability to fight away, I think, you'd see an increase in high-sticking, hits from behind, the violent stuff that you're seeing now. Having fighting there deters that, especially if the instigator rule is eliminated or changed so that the fighters and tough guys can do their jobs. I think having two guys square off, you see very few injuries from that, but you take a stick across a guy's head, I mean, you might see someone seriously injured from that. So, it's the lesser of two evils."

"The new breed of player has lost the respect from knowing that if you do something to someone else, you will have to pay the consequences," former Flames defenceman Steve Smith told the Calgary SUN two years ago. "Now the only consequences are two referees. It's not enough."

"Personally, I think they created a monster with the instigator penalty," said retired referee Ron Fournier. "We all know why they did that, for the image of the league. They didn't want two or three fights at the same time. But I feel (getting rid of the instigator rule) would reduce the instances when a guy gets a stick in the face or hit from behind. In the late 1980s if you did something disrespectful to an opposing player, three guys would jump you. There was that scary part of trying to cheap shot the opponent because you knew someone would come back at you."

"What is the right answer?" queried former Flames defenceman Al MacInnis in the SUN. "They tell us they can't sell hockey with the fighting, and it takes too much time for TV -- we don't need it for our game. If you don't have the instigator rule, you can police it the way it used to be. Maybe now the suspensions are getting stronger, that is the way they will try to do it. But teams policing themselves worked."

It's probably fair to say some 80% of current players - not to mention fans - would love to see the NHL drop the Instigator Rule, although a critic would point out roughly 90% of current players have never had any other experience except the rule and therefore lack an alternate experience on which to base their opinion.

Yet there was a time, in the mid-1970's, more than a quarter century ago, when NHL players were on their knees begging owners to institute curbs which would force goons and hooliganism in general out of the game.

And so we should ask ourselves if today's movement to eliminate curbs on fighting is in fact simply a case of waxing for a nostalgia, which few have experienced.

For the record let me state I'm not in favour of eliminating fighting from hockey. Fisticuffs, through the decades, has become part of the culture of the game. There is some relevance in saying it offers a safety valve to vent frustrations in the heat of action and, whether the highbrows like it or not it, fighting has a certain attraction at the gate as well.

In another era, however, when expansion saw the NHL go from six teams to 12 overnight and finally to 21 only a few years later, a shortage of skilled players may have forced coaches to dig deep into their bag of tricks and employ thuggery as a deliberate tactic.

Those watching a playoff game between the Leafs and Philadelphia on April 15, 1976, some 26 years ago, probably saw the single event - the straw that broke the camel's back - which finally pushed the NHL to act and initiate the first curbs on excessive violence.

The Flyers under head coach Ray Shero had already developed a well-deserved reputation as The Broad Street Bullies based on a combination of supreme skill and well placed mayhem in winning two consecutive Stanley Cups.

The Flyers started the 1976 playoffs where they had left off the previous two years, steamrolling the Leafs 4-1 and 3-1 in Philadelphia before the series shifted back to Toronto.

The first European star to make a mark in the NHL, Borje Salming, had his face reduced to a bloody pulp in this contest. Don Saleski defended himself from fans while in the penalty box, swinging his stick while his teammates came to his rescue.

And fights, fights, fights.

Saleski, Mel Bridgeman, Joe Watson and Bob Kelly were the four Flyers arrested and charged with assault, Toronto police saying their sticks had been used as weapons.

All on Hockey Night in Canada coast to coast.

"My boy is 11 years old and he was at the game," said Leaf defenceman Rod Seiling at the time. "It's not exactly what I want him to see or what I want him to think hockey is about. What an education for kids to see."

"It was disgusting, more like street fighting than hockey," was the reaction of Toronto's Inge Hammarstrom.

Billy Harris, a former NHL'er, said, "It was like gang hysteria."

You might be surprised to learn the Leafs actually won the game, 5-4, and the next one as well before bowing to the Flyers in seven.

The Leafs were hardly guileless sheep even if they had the local law on their side.

After all, it was Leafs owner Harold Ballard who had said earlier in the year that he wanted his team to play tough.

"I'm looking for guys you toss meat to and they'll go wild," said Ballard. "You've got to fight goons with goons."

Answering the call for Toronto that night was Kurt Walker - and if you remember him you're one wail of a Leaf fan - who, in a distinguished career lasting 71 games over six years, netted four goals but 152 penalty minutes. He was aided that night by his more than able comrade in mayhem Dave "Tiger" Williams and the less distinguished Pat Boutette.

But the incident was typical of the era.

"Body-checking and aggressiveness is part of hockey and so is the odd fight," said Bobby Hull of the WHA's Winnipeg Jets that summer. "But not the stuff that's going on. The intimidation. The stick-swinging. That's not hockey."

Sound familiar? How bad was it in the mid-70's - without an Instigator Rule?

In the fall of 1975, the NHL fined and suspended 62 players for brawling in exhibition games.

In June of 1975, only months earlier, the NHLPA, the players themselves, had urged "that a major penalty and game misconduct penalty shall be imposed on any player involved in fisticuffs."

That's right. The players, through the NHLPA, were the source of the original curbs on fighting, the original Instigator Rule, instituted long before the current version.

It points to the sheer level of fear the skill players of the day - the Paul Kariya's of that era - were playing under.

It is also a complete 180 degree turn from the position we see from most players today, the majority of whom believe the "good ole days" saw the tough guys doing nothing more than protecting the punchless cutey pies.

In fact, general mayhem was the rule, stick swinging was prevalent and old-timers lamented the "lack of respect" the new guys had for each other. Interestingly, players and fans today seem to be saying fighting needs to be allowed to cut down on stick fouls and other forms of intimidation.

Yet the instigator rule, at the behest of players with the benefit of experience in another era, was designed to do exactly that - cut down on stick fouls and other forms of intimidation that the goons were either instigating themselves or failing to prevent.

It was only after the Toronto/Philadelphia series, in the summer of 1976, that the NHL allowed a referee, at his discretion, to give a five minute major and a game misconduct to the aggressor in a fight, essentially the first rule aimed specifically at excessive fighting.

But no minor penalty as we see today.

Flyers captain Bobby Clarke, now Philadelphia's GM, was totally in favour of the measure.

"Obviously, all the brawling hasn't made the game popular," Clarke said in 1976. "I know fans who have been turned off by the mayhem. They want to bring their kids to a hockey game but not if they're going to have to watch a lot of fighting. We've lost our televised game of the week and crowds are falling off. I think the message is that hockey can be a lot better when you let the talented players perform without fear of getting worked over. If a player is in the league strictly for his fighting and just doesn't have the talent, maybe he shouldn't be in the league in the first place."

"It got to the point where some players were put in a position where they couldn't perform comfortably and that hurt the game," said Islanders great Denis Potvin in 1976. "I'm glad they didn't eliminate fighting entirely, because the occasional fight serves a purpose. If you levy too much against fighting, the game could revert to stick-fighting."

NHL Referee-in-Chief Scotty Morrison revealed in the summer of 1976 that the real intent of the new rule was to rid the game of the pure hell-raiser.

"The sole purpose (of the instigator rule) is to eliminate the goon (and rid the league of) the eight or nine players in the league who accumulated 200 or more penalty minutes last season," said Morrison at the time.

Using Morrison's standard of 200 or more penalty minutes as a qualifier we can see the original rule, which didn't carry the extra minor penalty most antagonists seem to fear today, nor an escalating series of suspensions for those engaged in certain numbers of fights in a game or a season, had a somewhat dubious impact.

In the year prior to the implementation of the new rule, there were ten players in an 18 team league with 200 or more penalty minutes.

The next year, with the rule in place, that number fell to six (although Schultz, now playing for LA, racked up 405 minutes) and eight such players the year after.

In the first year of the 21 team league, 1979-80, there were thirteen 200 minute players and then 24 in 1980-81 and 20 in 1981-82.

But the following three years saw the totals drop off to 11, 12 and 13 then jump to 20 in 1985-86, and 21 the next year.

In 1987-88, the number of 200 minute players ran up to 38, then consecutive years of 32, 36, 35 and finally 36 before the league decided to impose the more modern version of the Instigator Rule, the one we know today.

In the first year of that rule, 1992-93, there were 37 men with 200 or more penalty minutes, close to an all-time high. The number of 200-minute men didn't drop below 20 until 1997-98.

Last season, there were only eight players with 200 or more penalty minutes in a 30-team league.

The overall parity we see in the game today might be a contributing factor. Some 75% of games in the NHL today are decided by one goal or less. Taking an extra two-minute penalty as an aggressor merely to settle a score could be fatal.

Jeremy Roenick of Philadelphia, for one, agrees, saying a few months ago the instigator rule has little to do with the current level of stick work and cheap shots.

"I don't think that (the instigator rule) has to do with anything," said Roenick. "It's just the ferocity of the guys that are playing."

The American Psychological Association in 1997 released a study demonstrating NHL playoff teams relying on skill and finesse tended to prevail more often than highly penalized teams. The two Stanley Cup finalists this year, Carolina and Detroit, were also the two teams with the fewest fighting majors.

Of the top ten most penalized players in the NHL last year, only two played on a team qualifying for the post-season. Of the top 25 highest penalized players, only 10 were on playoff qualifying teams.

Incidents continued through the years of course. The record-setting dust-up in an otherwise non-descript fairly meaningless regular season game last year between the Flames and Anaheim game demonstrated the kettle is never far from boiling.

But the latter event is a rarity today.

What the Instigator Rule may have done is taken the concept of deliberate violence as an intimidation tactic out of the game.

"It's not significant to me whether guys fight or not in training camp," Flames coach Greg Gilbert said yesterday in the Calgary Herald. "I'm more focused on their understanding of the game and whether they can play. Guys in that role now have to be able to function on the ice."

Flames enforcer Craig Berube, who racked up 305 minutes with Washington in 1993-94, gave the Herald much the same line.

"The mentality has changed a lot," he said. "You've got to play the game nowadays. They want a competitive, hard game out there. They don't want any stupid (crap). Go out and play."

We can see from the 1970's and 1980's the guys generating more than 200 minutes a year were more often than not - but not always - engaging in activities other than simply providing protection for their teammates.

The other side of their job was intimidation through violence, something the average fan of today, and most players, with the gift of 20/20 hindsight, tend to forget.

The NHL, however, may continue to struggle, as it has for decades, with finding the right balance for how much fighting it should allow.

But the players of today may need to re-visit the past to see what a future of uninhibited fighting might bring.

Special thanks to a long-defunct publication, the 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Hockey for the above quotes from the 1970's, contained in a story by Hugh Delano of the New York Post, as well as various other media sources.

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