The Magical Time Before The Instigator Rule

Show any hard hit on a star player, or any cheap shot, and someone is bound to talk about the need to dump the instigator rule. They may reference the magical time before the instigator rule was implemented, generally in a ‘back when men were men and rats were hunted down and killed’ sort of way.

It’s self-delusion, of course.

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So I did a quick Google News archives search for “NHL cheap shot,” confining myself to the decade prior to the stringent enforcement of the instigator rule. I got 29 pages of results, and I’ve found video for a bunch of them. Let’s review the tape.

This is 5’9” scoring forward Brian Propp of the Philadelphia Flyers (commonly known as the “Broad Street Bullies”) taking a hit from Chris Chelios in May 1989. The Flyers met Montreal in the Conference Finals, and unlike now teams dressed enforcers in the playoffs. A quick look at the Flyers roster shows a long list of tough customers, from skilled muscle like Rick Tocchet at the top down to Craig Berube and Al Secord at the bottom.

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And here’s Dave Brown – a 6’5” enforcer who would later ply his trade in Edmonton – crosschecking Tomas Sandstrom early in 1988-89. Sandstrom had been the New York Rangers’ second-leading scorer the previous season.

I couldn’t find video on the third incident – one that Sabres’ head coach Rick Dudley described as a “cheap shot” on star forward Pat Lafontaine – but I’ve included the piece that ran in the New York Times on the incident below. It’s worth noting that the Sabres had three guys with 300+ PIM that year.

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And here’s Montreal enforcer Chris Nilan, “playing” against the “Big, Bad” Bruins. The player he butt-ends in the face is Boston captain Rick Middleton, one of the cleanest players in the game and a long-time scorer for the Bruins (over a 1005-game NHL career spanning the 70’s and 80’s, Middleton recorded just 157 PIM).

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Then there’s this article from August 1988, entitle “NHL refuses to let brightest stars shine.” The whole article is behind a pay wall, but here are two paragraphs from the free preview:

I’ve also included first this sucker punch and then cross-check from Wendel Clark on Slava Fetisov. The first incident was apparently unprovoked, while the second came about after Fetisov tried to take Clark out at the knees. Was Clark sending a message by hammering a star player or was Fetisov earning himself space by exacting vengeance on Clark or was Clark protecting himself from a dirty hit with a thoroughly understandable cross-check to the face before delivering the knockout blow?

Hey, some Oilers content! Here’s Edmonton goon Troy Mallette elbowing Pat Lafontaine in the face shortly after Lafontaine’s return from the Macoun cheap shot discussed above. Once again, keep in mind the Sabres have three guys who would collect 300+ PIM that season; Jay Wells, who pursues Mallette on the ice picked up 157 PIM in 41 games before being dealt away by Buffalo.

There’s plenty of other incidents in the archives, questions about who the best cheap-shot artist in the NHL is (including a player poll with that very question), complaints about guys taking cheap shots with sticks because they wear visors, Wayne Gretzky asking the NHL to outlaw fighting, and plenty of other fun stuff.  Not only did I not look past the first five pages, I’ve omitted a bunch of stuff.

All of this was going on before the NHL started cracking the instigator rule whip. Disrespect, hard hits on good players, and flat-out thuggery hasn’t crept into the game because of the instigator rule. If anything, the NHL’s cleaner today with modern-day goons in the mold of Nilan and Mallette and Brown fighting for their existence. Because here’s the thing: the guys whose careers are disappearing thanks to the instigator rule are, by and large, the same guys who elbow stars in the face or feed them the butt end of a stick.

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.

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  • letsbereasonable

    I really like the idea of a suspension for a dangerous, reckless or retaliatory hit to include a team-specific component such that part of the suspension may be say 4 games generally and the other part 4 games (including playoffs) against the team against which the penalty was taken.

    That would definitely cause players to think twice about how they hit another player as the suspended player could potentially be out against a big rival in the playoffs for up to 4 games.

    I also like the idea (seen it elsewhere) of the team with the suspended player having to play one player short until the suspension is over.

    If the league is serious about making player safety a true priority, then they need to start hitting players and teams where it really hurts – playoff seeding and playoff viability.

    Just my three cents :).

  • justDOit

    From 1991: “There’s no question that this is the sort of thing the N.H.L. wants to do something about.”, general manager Gerry Meehan said.

    How many times has this exact phrase been uttered this year alone? Disturbing.

  • Reg Dunlop

    Hockey has always been rough and tumble but today players are bigger, stronger, faster and inflict damage like never before. For anyone who thinks hockey was somehow ‘cleaner’ before, watch Hunter/Turgeon. Dale Hunter was likely the dirtiest player of all time,and also emerged from his meyhem causing career unscathed, because he was tough and unpredictable. If the oil allowed Eager to go snapshow once in a while at the least teams would spend time and energy chasing him and not Eberle. At least I think so.

  • justDOit

    I would have to disagree with the instigator penalty. I think its kinda dumb because players like Matt Cooke who make it there own to purposely knock out the best player has to only fight when asked and if he agrees upon.

    Wouldnt it make more sense for players like Marchand, Cooke, Ott, Kaleta, Progner, Beiksa etc.. to always have to think of the response and have to have eyes in the back of their heads if they want to take a cheap shot on someone. I love what the Bruins are doing this year and last year because they arent taking any crap from anyone and the whole league knows if your going to do something stupid to anyone of their players your going to HAVE! to fight and stick up for yourself not pick and choose who and when to fight.

    The only thing that bothers me about getting rid of the instigator rule is when teams are loosing there are just going to jump the other teams best players. Although in saying that if they do do that they are going to be eating alot more punches then they want which in my opinion makes the game safer in the long run. Its better having players stick up for their teammates or themselves then have the meaningless face off fights with two cavemen.

  • Mitch2

    I don’t like the structure of this article and find it extremely misleading.

    Firing the topic of cheap-shots like a shot-gun blast across all the eras of hockey without context.

    First why did you neglect the 60s and early 70s? Did cheap shots happen? Sure but this was the real era when every player, as they had for decades took care of themselves. Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Espositio and on and on all were big men who played the game well and fought.

    Hockey was simply a big man’s game and it was a tough game.

    Then the most pivotal moment in the history of the game. The event that changed everything. The 1972 Summit Series when the Soviets came in and literally schooled Canada on a whole new way of playing the game.

    From this point the NHL started to change. No longer were smaller skilled players overlooked, no longer were all players expected to be tough and able to take care of themselves.

    Skilled players started to come into the NHL in waves in the mid to late 70s and the goal scoring eras opened up, but now the enforcer came along with them, he was needed, a new kind of player that had little to no hockey skill and whose only function was to protect the star players. to deliver cheap shots if you will.

    The NHL was in transition and this is when the voices to ban Fighting were correct and it made sense. When you have players who can not even play the game on the ice, an issue is at hand.

    The NHL continued to evolve, helmets were made mandatory, no longer did you see players with out them eventually. Cheap shots in the past were often much worse than they are today, not better. The game has improved and gotten safer.

    Of course we all know players played through concussions in the past and the latest outrage of Keith’s elbow on Sedin would have not even gotten much more than a shrug in the 80s and Sedin would probably be playing through his concussion symptoms.

    The game has gotten safer but the problem is still there and others are appearing.

    Diving and embellishment has reached higher and higher levels and we will see even more this playoffs. Stick work is also becoming much, much more frequent and is often not even detected. Purposeful stickwork to the faces. Players are taking less responsibility for their safety by turning their backs going into the boards. The game is faster and the force of contact has much greater impact.

    The game has evolved, whether you like it or not. To root out players who cheap shot might require a much more precise definition of what you mean. Putting up a bunch of videos from the old eras without even the context that elbowing used to be a 2 min penalty is not fair.

    The so-called cheap shot that Keith gave Sedin was nothing more than a 2 min elbowing call in the 70s.

    I don’t think this article is fair because it uses the term ‘cheap shots’ as a blanket term across eras when its tolerance has dropped to such a low level today that elbowing is considered a cheap shot worth 20 games instead of the 2 min it was worth in the 70s.

    • Wax Man Riley


      You don’t like the “structure” of the article because it is misleading?

      Bobby Hull was 5’10”, so slightly smaller than Sam Gagner. Hulking Phil Esposito topped out no bigger than Shawn Horcoff.

      I’m just putting it out there, but maybe Willis’ article just seems wrong to you because you don’t have the right story?

      • Mitch2

        My story or perspective is not about the size as much as the fact that players or the old era would all fight. Now we have players who will not, players who skate away.

        An injustice – real or imagined – can not be dealt with on the ice because many players will simply skate away. That started in the late 70s with the “protected” players bringing along their enforcers to take care of things.

        • Mitch2

          Are you sure you’re not thinking of a romanticized, “magical” past?

          Dutch Reibel from all accounts I’ve see was a small guy who pretty much stuck to scoring. Reibel won Lady Byng and lists only one fight. Gagner has more already. According to one time Reibel played on a line with bruisers Howe and Terrible Ted Lindsay. lists 47 fights in Reidel’s year and the league leaders are classic allstars like Fern Flaman, Bert Olmstead, and Gust Mortson.

          Its almost as if even in the good old days they had their non-fighting skill guys and some goons on patrol. But at least there weren’t any cheap shots until those were invented in the 1970s.

    • Hockey Buddha

      Hi mom.

      @ Jonathon Willis

      Al Secord was a fairly skilled player who could also drop the mits to TCB. He was past his prime when he landed in Philadelphia, but I didn’t think that the implication that he was even remotely equivalent to Craig Berube was all that accurate. Not the same class of player at all imo.

  • Mitch2

    What I see is that not much has changed over the past thirty years – do people really think that a 2 minute for instigating penalty has induced a massive change in “The Code” of hockey violence and retribution? I think what has been said already about things like OHL initiatives where reckless hits cost players a season and likely a career are far more likely to alter “The Code”, as those kinds of players get rooted out earlier. But we are talking about big strong highly competitive men in highly charged atmospheres doing impulsive things and that happens in every sport. As was previously writted, suspendably offences are being committed by the Skinners and Ovechkins in the league. Instigator rule or not: impulsive injurious hits are going to happen.

    • Mitch2

      The difference is this imo, in the past a cheap shot lead to a fight.

      Now a cheap shot, leads to a retaliatory cheap shot. A stick to the face, a kill pass, whatever.

      Player suppress the fight, drop the gloves instinct to plan to get back at the other player in what is a more dangerous way.

      Take the Sedin – Keith incident. In the past Keith would have instantly dropped his gloves and Sedin would have been compelled to do the same. Little brush-up, off to the box for 5 min. End of issue.

      Now Keith takes the shoulder hit to the head and suppresses the inclination to fight. He marks Sedin and will pick his moment later. Which is exactly what he did.

      Imo, the stalking nature that happens now instead of the quick brush-up that could settle the affair is the issue.

      The NHL has made leaps forward already in making hockey safer, the logic that was in place when the instigator rule was brought in made sense. Now as the goons leave the game, as the skill increases and GMs simply will not waste their roster space on pure enforcers it can continue to grow.

      I am not sure if I agree on completely removing the instigator rule but having another look at it may be worth it.

  • @ M:

    1) I’m rolling video. It’s hard enough to find video from the 80’s, nevermind the 60’s/70’s. Furthermore, the 80’s are a lot more recent and have more in common with today’s game than earlier eras did – keep in mind the NHL was six teams until 1967, so we’re not talking remotely the same thing.

    2) Fetisov, in the videos above – he’s the guy getting pummeled by Clark – was ripped mercilessly by Don Cherry for being an artist with his stick. Fetisov’s stick work is the reason Paul Coffey started wearing a visor. He was hardly alone in this. The idea that stick work today is worse than it was in the 80’s and 90’s is ludicrous, particularly when presented without a shred of supporting evidence.

    3) Every incident above was described as a “cheap shot” in the press at the time. I’m not making these judgement calls. The hockey media writing about them did. Regardless, your whole argument reinforces my primary point – the game is cleaner now, with an instigator rule in place, than it ever was with three enforcers per side patrolling the ice. You say the Keith elbow on Sedin was worth a 2 minute penalty in the ’70s and that players played thru all sorts of terrible things – that’s the whole point.

    • Mitch2

      You missed my whole point.

      You throw the term “cheap shot” around without context over 3 decades.

      People read this article and the way you have presented your perspective is that “cheap shots” have always existed. The term has always existed, the extent of what we see on the ice has radically changed.

      A purposeful elbow to Sedin is a cheap shot today, in the 70s it was a 2 min penalty.

      I agree the game is overall safer now, mandatory helmets and the appearance of so many visors now may be another reason. I don’t think holding the instigator rule up as the sole reason for the safer game that exists today is fair comment. There are several factors at play.

      It may be part of it but it isn’t the only thing. I also think fights in and of themselves are safer than “cheap shot” for “cheap shot” that we see in todays game.

      I also disagree with your notion that fights serve to elevate matters rather than diffuse them. While you can certainly pull up single examples to counter me like the Moore incident, the vast majority of fights in todays game do not elevate matters, they diffuse on-ice tension and allow both teams to feel a matter is resolved.

      Stating fights elevate tension rather than diffuse it ignores the vast majority of them and the vast majority of games they occur in. You are taking the small cases and presenting them as the whole.

  • M wrote:

    The difference is this imo, in the past a cheap shot lead to a fight… Player suppress the fight, drop the gloves instinct to plan to get back at the other player in what is a more dangerous way.

    You saw the Fetisov/Clark thing above, right? The idea that a fight settled matters and then they were forgotten is completely inaccurate.

    It always has been, and you don’t even need to go back to the ’80’s to know that. Marty McSorley clocked Donald Brashear on the head with his stick, knocking him unconscious after the latter bested him in a fight. Steve Moore answered the bell and fought for hitting Markus Naslund; his neck was broken later in that same game.

    As often as not, a fight serves to elevate matters, rather than settling them.

    • As often as not, a fight serves to elevate matters, rather than settling them.

      I don’t think this can be said accurately based on a few examples over years of hockey where fights elevated matters. How do you know there aren’t many more examples of fights ending the matter on the spot? Since these incidents typically don’t make the news we can’t know. It seems a bit disingenuous to use only sensationalized incidents as our entire data base.

  • Time Travelling Sean

    I don’t need to look at video from the old days.

    The stick work back then was brutal.The oilers Green was an example.

    What’s happened with the equipment changes it has become roller derby.Players like Boll run at you without worrying about a charging penalty or a stick in the face.Boll doesn’t care about a suspension while the skill players he runs don’t want to get the stick up because they might get suspended.

    The solution is the NHL to allow players to prorect themselves by raising their elbows and sticks against players who are charging them

  • Time Travelling Sean

    When Kesler got hit by Kronwall he wanted to go, but Kronwall ran to the ref? Do you agree with that?

    Do you think if your going to play a physical, borderline dirty game you shouldn’t go sprinting to the ref when you make said play?

    If enforcers aren’t important in preventing dirty plays, even though I think they can be a deturrent, is the onus on the player receiving the hit to protect/stick up for himself?

    What if the player who just took a run at you with his elbow runs to the ref after you decide to settle it? 2 minute roughing penalty?

    The league shouldn’t protect the Kronwall’s imo, he should be accountable and realize the way he plays is going to make people act like Wendle Clark and just punch him in the head.