The Instigator Rule was introduced in the NHL in 1992, in a controversial move by a controversial league president, the short-lived Gil Stein. This seemingly drastic change, which was upheld by incoming commissioner Gary Bettman, came hot on the heels of the rough-and-tumble 1980s, and sharply divided fans. In fact, this specific rule change would do a lot to paint the long-term perception of Bettman in the minds of many fans. The controversy over this rule has waned as anti-fighting sentiment grows amongst the NHL’s fanbase, but if the NHL is going to keep fighting in the game, it needs to seriously re-visit the Rule 56. The Instigator Rule has been an abject failure, as it was introduced with a handful of specific goals, and has failed in those goals entirely, all the while serving to the overall detriment of the league and its image.
The NHL introduced the Instigator Rule with three basic goals; reducing fighting overall, protecting star players, and improving the league image. Since 1992, the league has only seen success with one of these issues, and the Instigator Rule probably doesn’t deserve much credit for the decrease in fighting overall. Worse, the other two issues have arguably been exacerbated by the introduction of the Instigator Rule. Next season will mark the 25th birthday of the Instigator Rule, and it has definitely overstayed its welcome.
It is absolutely true that fighting has decreased in great numbers since the Instigator Rule was introduced in 1992. The 1987-88 season saw an all-time high of 1.31 fights per game, and the number had decreased to 1.05 by the 1991-92 season. The 2014-15 season had 0.35 fights per game, the result of a steady decline over two and a half decades.
However, there are many factors aside from the Instigator Rule that have contributed to this decline in fighting. The league has gradually become more skill-oriented over the last 25 years for a variety of reasons, including an increased focus on coaching, the influx of European players, and the rise of American hockey. This has resulted in a faster game, and the necessity of having a 4th line that can play. This has helped cause the demise of the enforcer, which obviously decreases the overall number of fights. The designated “goon” role, rather than discouraged by the Instigator Rule, was actually encouraged by it, as I will discuss later. The faster, more skilled game has also resulted in less physicality in the game, meaning there is less of a reason for players to fight.
Along with the reduced physicality and increased skill of the NHL, the past 25 years have seen a huge advance in medical knowledge regarding head injuries, and specifically concussions. This discourages both fighting and the headhunting hits that cause fights, as players know well the potential consequences of repeated head trauma.
Some other factors in reducing fighting include anti-fighting rules at the junior level, the introduction of mandatory visors, and the continually lessening influence of Don Cherry. The Instigator Rule itself only discourages one specific type of fighting, that being reactionary fights. The Instigator Rule only comes into play when a player immediately responds to something and starts a fight, and does nothing to discourage “appointment” fights between enforcers. As discussed in the next section, one particular type of fight that the Instigator Rule discourages is star players standing up for themselves.
Protecting Star Players
Before I get started on this topic, one thing needs to be cleared up. There is too much focus overall on the two-minute penalty associated with the Instigator penalty. The ten-minute misconduct is usually overlooked, but is far more consequential.
The idea that the Instigator Rule will protect star players from being jumped is faulty. There has never been a period of time when one player could drop his gloves, grab an unwilling appointment, and starting pounding on him without incurring some serious penalties. Some people like to pretend like before the Instigator Rule, players could jump each other and have it result in 5 minutes for fighting to each player, but that is simply not the case. Usually, this kind of action resulted in only one player receiving a major for fighting, along with additional minors or misconducts depending on the severity of the action. Even if a player clearly started a fight with an opponent that was eventually willing to go, the instigating player would always usually get an extra holding, roughing, or slashing minor. Therefore, the Instigator Rule changes very little for these kind of fights, with the only major difference being the mandatory misconduct. This mandatory misconduct is actually to the detriment of star players, not their benefit.
The general issue is that a misconduct penalty hurts players more depending on how many minutes they player. A 4th line player is affected very little by a ten-minute misconduct, as they might spend ten minutes on the bench at a time anyway. Meanwhile, a star player who plays over 20 minutes each night cannot afford to spend a sixth of the game in the penalty box. In short, Connor McDavid has much more to fear from an Instigator penalty than John Scott does. Does that seem right? In a scenario where Sidney Crosby starts a fight with Zac Rinaldo due to a hit by Rinaldo, versus a scenario where Zac Rinaldo starts a fight with Crosby just to get him off the ice, Crosby and the Penguins will feel the effects of the penalty worse. Does that seem right?
The only type of fight that is penalized under the Instigator Rule that would not have been before it is a fight that is between two willing combatants, but that comes as the obvious result of something one fighter has done. His opponent will usually receive an Instigator penalty in this case, even if both drop their gloves simultaneously. This further hurts star players, as it means that using fighting to immediately respond to star players being targeted is heavily discouraged. Instead, a different type of fight of encouraged, to the detriment of the league’s image, and allows players to get away with targeting star players without retribution, or worse, causes a buildup of emotions that overboil in terrible ways.
Improving League Image
Two major things have hurt the league’s image over the past 25 years, the rise of designated “goons” and appointment fights, and the increase in extremely violent incidents. It can be argued that the Instigator Rule actually helped to cause these two things, hurting the league’s image overall instead of helping it.
As discussed in previous section, the Instigator Rule deters reactionary fights, but does nothing to discourage “appointment” fights off the faceoff. In many cases, you will actually see players avoid reacting to a fight immediately and instead resort to a fight off the faceoff several players later, which is undoubtedly a worse situation for league optics, as these fights seem pointless and appear to be for entertainment purposes only.
As the mandatory misconduct part of the Instigator penalty discourages skilled players from fighting, it has the countereffect of encouraging teams to carry designated fighters to handle the fighting and the penalty load that comes with it. The designated fighter situation got out of control in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, with teams sometimes carrying 2 or more players whose primary job was to fight. As discussed in the first section, this was eventually countered by an influx of skill into the game, but there is little doubt that the increase in designated goons was in part due to the introduction of the Instigator Rule.
Finally, the discouragement of reactionary fights has had the natural consequence of having emotions bottle up within the game, and occasionally over multiple games. This is particularly true when the perpetrators of actual or perceived slights against a team later refuse their scheduled “appointment” fight. This sort of emotional buildup has resulted in many extremely violent acts that have hurt the image of the league, including the McSorley and Bertuzzi incidents. While it is not certain that the removal of the Instigator rule would have prevented these incidents, it is certain that the rule has created the kinds of situations that cause these incidents, and has done nothing to prevent them.
The NHL now has 25 years worth of evidence with which to judge the Instigator Rule. I think the conclusions should be obvious. The Instigator Rule has failed completely in its initial goals, and it appears that the originators of the rule completely missed the point when it comes to the fighting debate. There are many issues surrounding fighting that need to be addressed, but the Instigator Rule worsens these issues and does nothing to solve them. As long as fighting exists in the NHL, the Instigator Rule will continue to muddle the debate. Even the new, less physical NHL would still benefit heavily from its immediate removal.