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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  • Bucknuck

    Softer pads on the shoulders and elbows like Jason Strudwick suggested, coupled with more diligence on the part of the refs should go a long way toward players safety.

    Do you think it will happen?

  • Bucknuck

    I read the article and posted a comment but hadn’t watched the videos. I just watched the videos and it’s kind of disgusting.

    Pat LaFontaine is one player who should have had a longer career. It’s sad to see an Oiler do something so cheap to him. Though Mallette is in a long line of shady Oilers, for instance I remember the Bryan Marchment days quite clearly, and McSorley was no angel.

    I like a good hockey fight, and I don’t think they should take that out of the game, but I agree with the notion that I pay money to watch the stars play. The Pat LaFontaines, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’, and Jordan Eberle’s. I don’t pay to watch a dirtball like Matt Cooke.

    They need to hand out larger suspensions.

  • Yeah, the idea that the threat of violence subdues “bad behavior” is somewhat intuitive. On the other hand, violence also tends to lead to more violence, resulting in an escalation and inevitable “arms race”.

  • Dan the Man

    Speaking of cheapshots…

    I’m curious as to what had more of an impact on Matt Cooke dialing back his dirty play this year?

    Was it the fear of even more lengthy suspensions or was it perhaps Crosby or his other Penguin teammates telling him to smarten up?

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Similar to the “players had more respect for each other in the past” argument some oldtimers break out when any cheap shot happens now. When a player has his job in the league or his long-term health threatened these things happen. Elimination of cheap shots will never happen the league can only hope to limit them with harsh penalties. Example: Matt Cooke seems to have turned his reputation around since being suspended for those 10 games + 1st round of playoffs last year.

    Just wanna add a kudos to 99% of posters on the OilersNation site. I read the tsn and sportsnet message boards from time to time and it seems like a bunch of 10 year olds are rumming amok. It’s nice to read thoughtful comments and articles for the most part.

  • stevezie

    In contact sports the Big Hit or similar forms of intimidation are a commodities rewarded with admiration, praise or other. (aka NO Saints bounty program) This culture incubates at the Pee Wee level and proliferates as the game and stakes get higher. Coaches reward it; fans and teammates love it. Skilled guys don’t need this aspect but middle and lower pack guys are doing whatever it takes to keep those million dollar contracts intact. As long as the rewards exist the bullies (new label – impact player) are all too willing to inflict punishment or put another player’s career at risk. The players aren’t in a union….together. They are independent contractors. Otherwise they would have greater respect and take better care of each other. Or maybe I’m just delusional.

  • stevezie

    Steve Macintyre seems like a really nice guy, and I’m happy for him having a career, but the day people like him have no hope of finding a job the the big leagues will be a very good day for hockey.

  • 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.

  • Petr's Jofa

    Interesting article.

    I think the NHL needs to look at indefinate suspension for deliberate head shots. Often the punishment is assigned before the full extent of the injury is known. It may only be 3 games or 5 games, but let the player worry about re-instatment.

    As well, I’ve always found it frustrating that if an oiler is injured playing team X, then suspending that player doesn’t help the oilers. Infact it may hurt Edmonton because other teams get to play team X while their player is suspended.

    I have no solution to this, the closest I can think of is something like: Keith’s suspension shouldn’t be for 5 games. It should be for the next 5 games vs the canucks. (of course that’s a years if it’s cross conferences)

  • BulletAC

    Another side of the argument, how often have so called enforcers hid behind the Instigator as a sort of “hold me back, hold me back” excuse? Recall all of the bleating Brad May and the Canucks did shortly after the original Moore incident and see how often the rule was brought up; you would have thought it was a lethal injection and not simply an extra misconduct penalty…