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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • @Jonathan Willis

    I’m sure you’re aware, but Ron Hextall mugged Chelios later on after that hit (not sure if that’s in the video.. I’m at work and can’t surf Youtube). Really, removing the instigator doesn’t prevent this from happening, it gives us some sick pleasure in thinking that the guy who messed with one of our players “got his too, in the end”. That’s about it. It isn’t going to prevent Hall from getting cranked nightly, definitely not. But it would give me some cheap satisfaction in watching someone that messed with him or another stall get jumped on, like MacIntyre did on that Minny guy last year (was it Stoner?), but without worrying about the instigator penalty and such. But that’s the barbarian in me.

    Really, our stars aren’t safe. As far as I’m concerned, removing the instigator won’t protect them.. but maybe it’s about time we started fighting fire with fire. I think Darcy Hordichuk is more than willing to do that, but he’s on a tight, tight leash with Renney and doesn’t get much opportunity to (and very arguably rightfully so). But I think rather than sitting back and waiting for our stars to get hammered around and wonder what to do, we need some guys who play with more of that edge that will go out and make it difficult for the other team’s stars to play and not look behind them all the time.

    Ideally, Ben Eager SHOULD be that guy. He can play a regular shift, is fast, is tough as nails, and can back up anything he stars. He doesn’t play that way though. But yah, rather than worrying about how to retaliate to sh– the Canucks start on us, I’d rather that we have some guys who go out and punish their stars a bit.

    Until the NHL does a better job of keeping our players from getting thrashed around and bruised.. maybe we just do some of the initiating. Andy Sutton can (and has) do it. Hordichuk can… Jones probably could. Hartikainen could..

    • Yeah. Hextall got suspended for that attack too, IIRC.

      The problem with the ‘fire-with-fire’ rule is this: how do other teams react to it? I know what the reaction here would be if Andy Sutton were playing for Colorado and lined up Hall the way he lined up Landeskog – it would be a mix of KILL HIM and KILL DUCHENE/LANDESKOG/STASTNY.

      Having guys that play that way only encourages more of the same.

      The Red Wings seem to have found a pretty good system for dealing with this stuff.

      • The Red Wings are a fine example for everything that goes right, but I’m not sure how easy it is to pull off. In a perfect world, the way you eliminate that stuff is to make them afraid to put their goons on the ice… but what happens when the goons actually know how to play hockey?

        I think Datsyuk and the like do prevent guys like Parros being on a lineup card or seeing much icetime, but how would the Red Wings react if Niklas Kronwall was playing against them, lining up their stars at the blue line?

        I’m not so sure the pacifist routine works the best either.

        That said, I don’t have a solution either, as I was never sold that guys that play like that cower when they know there is retribution waiting. Again, all the fighting after a big / dirty hit has done for me is given me some satisfaction that the hit was answered / stood up for (my own personal satisfaction).

      • Time Travelling Sean

        Run to the ref?

        Oh and am I the only one who smiles at that Duncan Keith hit? Just, he’s going to get a nice rest before the playoffs and Daniella, their best player is out after dishing out a questionable hit imo?

        I mean I don’t want him to be Marc Savard, but that’s hockey no? You hit me in the head late, I hit you in the head when you don’t have the puck.

        Either way isn’t this why people would rather have a skilled large body than a skilled small one? Better ability to take care of oneself.

        Oh and I don’t think RNH is ever gonna get clocked, not the way he plays. He’ll get hit, but I don’t think he’ll ever get Kronwalled.

  • A-Mc

    I wonder how players would feel if a Cheapshot resulted in a 20 game suspension.

    That’s right, a full quarter of your season is gone in 1 poorly landed hit. 2 mistakes in 1 season and suddenly you have coaching and management changing their tune about being overly aggressive.

    Going into the corner, a player should be thinking about player safety first and right now i think it’s more about how violently you can remove a guy from the puck. **EDIT** I suppose i shouldn’t limit this only to “Going into a corner”. Any hitting situation should be considered.

    • This is exactly right A-Mc, with each check delivered by a player, they know at this time what the consequences are going to be & they’re willing to do it anyway! This tells me the penalties aren’t severe enough to protect the safety of the players! It (the penalties)must deter players from making bad decisions & the habitual offenders will soon weed themselves out of the league!

      Some good decisions have been made in the feeder leagues like the OHL in terms of rule changes & this is where it needs to start. Goons will not make it to upper echelon leagues & eventually the NHL because they will not have the skill to play there! We will still see tough players & probably some hockey fights through competition but the Matt Cooke’s of the hockey world will not have an avenue to succeed if this starts at the grass roots!

  • 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.

  • Oilers21

    The thing that always gets me is the “players have no respect for each other anymore” argument (otter 2334 spoke to it briefly). Has anyone who perpetuates this argument ever watched hockey from decades past? Rick Jodzio pummelling Marc Tardif with both fists while he lay helpless? Dave Schultz beating Dale Rolfe so badly his own teammates were afraid to come to his rescue? Lafontaine getting hammered into the boards about 10 seconds after scoring? Teams like the Bruins and Flyers priding themselves on their ability to basically out-fight the opposition? I know it sounds like I’m cherry-picking examples, and I can’t prove that players today have MORE respect for each other than they used to (obviously cheap shots, etc still happen a lot), but to suggest that they have LESS respect is just ludicrous in my opinion.

  • master of my domain

    I may be in the minority, but I’d like to see the instigator called more. right now a player can’t even land a good solid bodycheck without having to worry about some goon jumping him. don’t get me wrong, I love a good heat of the moment tilt, I just hate the fact that a good hit means having to “answer the bell” too often.

  • Dipstick

    I sometimes wonder if the league should consider a rule prohibiting predatory hits. Hitting a player to remove him from the puck is great, but trying to remove a player from the game (or longer) has little attraction for me. I expect that a lot of fans will disagree with this approach and it might be unworkable, but I think that it should be explored.

    • justDOit

      Yup – I’m with that predator rule! Scott Stevens was the king of them. He’d let his D partner just start to engage a rushing forward, and then he’d move in for the 3rd party crush. The rushing forward is focusing on his partner and doesn’t see Stevens coming. And those hits are still celebrated today. I’m all for tough hockey and good hits, but I take even more pleasure in watching talented players work their magic.

      Another thing I’ve noticed is players tying to time a hit at the exact moment his prey touches the puck (like Sarrich did to Hall). Even if Hall had not lost an edge, he would have been steam-rolled by Sarrich. Just like a player is still vulnerable for one steam-boat after he passes the puck, so should he be exempt for that same interval after he first touches the puck (acquisition period). Maybe this is too difficult to police, but I feel that something needs to change.

      • justDOit

        There is nothing wrong with what Steven’s did except he nailed guys with the forarms and elbows. If it was a hip check or a shoulder then its fair game. I still believe guys have a responsibility to keep their head up, and the guy hitting them has a responsibility to hit them cleanly.

        Rob Blake is a great example of a guy who use to move out of his lane to knock a guy. Phaneuf is guy today who’s an example of a guy who adjusted his game to him guys shoulder to shoulder.

        Im against the blindside hits where the guy comes from behind and swoops in nails a guy. However I don’t want to say goodbuy to the open ice clean hits like Willy Mitchell on Toews a couple years back. I can do without the Steven’s Kariya/ Lindros hits to the head.

  • Truth

    Maybe we should all just accept that Hockey is what it is. Included within are cheap shots and pre-determined fights.

    I know one thing for sure, if I’m the one performing the cheap shot I would be hoping Dave Brown isn’t suited for the other team. I don’t care what the stats say.

    • The stats? All I’ve put up there are links and video of nastiness, generally perpetrated by a guy supposedly out there to protect his stars.

      FACT: Just because Jonathan Willis writes something does not mean statistics were included.

      • Truth

        Sorry about that, I did realize afterwards stats was a bad word to use. Bottom line is that if the opposing team has a guy that can and will beat the snot out of you if you did something out of line, you are less inclined to do so IMO.

        Jason Gregor posted a great article after interviewing former NHLer Perry Berezan last friday. The following quote taken from that article and straight from the mouth of Berezan speaks volumes to this subject:

        “And that whole needling, the old Oiler team, if you even looked at Gretzky the wrong way, every single player that came off that bench for the rest of the game would threaten to kill you. So that mentality that the old Oiler team had made it impossible for anyone ‑‑besides a guy like Neil Sheehy, I guess he was the biggest pest at that time for Wayne Gretzky ‑‑ but it made everyone think twice about doing something to those star players.”

        I do realize he specifically points out that Neil Sheehy would be unaffected by the fact that retribution would be coming, but it can’t be said that the rest of the players did not take notice.

        It would appear your arguement is that if you were to take Sheehy and Semenko out of the game the cheap shots would leave with them? I don’t see how relevant that is. Look at the last 10 suspensions handed out: Duncan Keith, Shane Doan, Jeff Skinner, Tyler Myers, Mike Green, Zac Rinaldo, Alex Ovechkin, and Andrew Ference.

        Only Rinaldo could be considered a “goon” out of that group IMO.

        In the end, cheap shots are going to happen whether the goons are playing or not. This is also why I believe one of the most sought after commodities right now in the NHL is a Milan Lucic type. It just my opinion that some sort of deterence would be beneficial.

        Duncan Keith got a 5 game vacation prior to the playoffs for possibly costing Vancouver a cup. He played the entire rest of the game and only received a couple of facewashes. What would have Dave Brown done? Would Keith have elbowed Sedin in the first place?

        • What would Dave Brown have done? My guess is that Brown would have fed Kane some lumber in the face before Keith and Sedin had a chance to do anything, just like he does to Tomas Sandstrom in the video above.

          That’s not the solution.

        • Wax Man Riley

          Did you read the article yesterday about the Boston Bruins’ Savard injuries?

          Lucic and Chara were on the ice.

          Still cheap shot. And months later when he came back there was another. It did not prevent a darn thing.

      • ubermiguel

        @ Willis; there are no stats, but you always apply reason and actual evidence to back-up your arguments. A rare and under-appreciated skill. Many props to you.

  • Revisit the instigator rule . The New Orlean Saints got punished for intent to take players out , yet in hockey it is an acceptable practice to take players out . Management ,players, coaching and otherwise . The very cult of hockey needs some readjustment in order to protect it’s stars . Dangerous play rule needs visiting .

    Bigger nets would open the game up for the stars . The lack of net size has made for “hockey in a closet ” . The more they play scrum hockey in a closet , the more injuries will develop . They need to open game up for the fans and players , and this need not need a bigger ice surface – just a bigger net size to fix the massive size of goalie equipment in effect now .

    Hockey is becoming more boring each season now , and more stars are being targeted to add to this . Who wants to be bored watching players trying to take out each anothers stars , and watching not much more than scrum goals all the time ? Thats part of hockey , but it,s far too much in todays play . OPEN THE GAME UP , before you destroy it and it’s stars !

  • stevezie

    Great, easy to make point. I would go so far as to say in some ways fighting encourages cheap shots, because if you’re tough enough to defend yourself, it’s like a license. The main people tough guys have to police is other tought guys. There are exceptions of course, but this idea that righteous fighters will protect us from villainous weasles ignores the fact that they are often one and the same. Look at the above clips! Look at Tie Domi! Look at Dale Hunter!

    Let me be clear- I support fighting. I think occasionally having to “back it up” is good. I just think that the idea of having a subsection of players dedicated to violence as a method of curbing violence makes as much sense as- well it makes as much sense as a lot of guns laws and national defence policies.

  • I wish there was some conclusive proof to back up my point, so bare with me its just an opinion. I think the league was probably more dangerous with all the good ol’ knuckledraggers back in the day then it is now.

    Secondly, a kid like Hall is going to have a target on him. Some guys made room for themselves out there, and some players need someone to do that for them. The biggest need going forward for the Oilers if they are going to employ these kids, is to find a guy who can make room for them. The Oilers signed Eager who I was hoping could fill this role. Unfortunately he’s a liability because of the dumn penalties. I’d love to see the Oilers go after a Stewart outta St. Louis, or get a guy like Downey who’s got a screw loose. It might be as big a need as a defencemen or goal tending.

  • 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.

  • Dan the Man

    I wonder how guys like RNH and Hall feel about having someone like Hordichuck around?

    Does it make any difference to them when they play other teams with designated fighters? Or do they not even care since they are not likely to even be on the ice with the other teams tough guy?

    • Time Travelling Sean

      They probably like him. No doubt if your going to play the Flames, it probably has a calming/wecantalkcareofthingsifthingsgetoutofhand psychological edge if they have 1-2 goons with some skill. And I read that goons are easy to come by, and it kind of means you have to be well liked, or a likeable person or else be replaced.

  • NuckfiSh

    Call me delusional, but i dont think the game is that dirty.

    Your a stats guy Willis, you have stats for everything and I love it, I would be interested to see how many plays resulting in both injury & suspension actually occur over the course of a season on a minutes per game type basis.

    The cheap shots that do occur, like Keith on Sedin, happen within a matter of seconds, and are replayed over and over in slow motion, and debated at nauseum for weeks at a time, until the next cheap shot occurs.

    I’ve watched a lot of hockey over the years, and I do notice when players ‘let up’. The way guys play nowadays – eg protecting the puck by turning your back to the play, or extending yourself & reaching for a loose puck (Taylor Hall) – the opportunity for cheap shots & dirty play is far more prevelant then the cheap shots themselves.

    Just my take on it.

  • Alex Hemsky

    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


    Cherry loves to bring up examples of these “policemen” going after players who had it coming. What he conveniently forgets is how often they went after guys like Borje Salming.