Getting off Bertuzzi’s Case and onto a Solution

By Wally Hourback | March 20, 2004

I’m on no one’s side when it comes to the Todd Bertuzzi incident. What Bertuzzi did was wrong, and needs to be punished. But when it comes to keeping it from happening again, or barring fights in hockey, everyone I’ve heard mouthing off on the subject is nearly as wrong as Bertuzzi.

Former player Jim Kyte came close to getting it right on CBC Radio’s Ontario Phone-in, but he couldn’t clear his brain of enough of the stupid clichés the NHL installed while he was playing to articulate it. What he was trying to get at was that part of what caused Bertuzzi to act as he did was the “instigator rule”, which Kyte thinks is the cause of a lot of the stupid behind-the-play violence now dogging professional hockey.

I think he’s right. If Bertuzzi had skated up to Moore, dropped the gloves and whacked him for deliberately trying to injure Vancouver star Marcus Naslund earlier in the season, he’d have been tossed from the game for starting a fight, and that would have been the end of it. But because of the instigator rule, he sandbagged Moore from behind, a play that normally would have cost him two minutes for interference or roughing, and five minutes had he drawn some blood—unlikely, given that he didn’t even remove his glove. Moore shares some complicity in this because he was clearly avoiding a confrontation with Bertuzzi, and was skating away when the blow landed, trying to draw a penalty—the instigator penalty. And anyway, it wasn’t the blow that broke Moore’s neck. It was the way he fell (I’m not convinced he wasn’t "diving" when he dropped) and the angle at which Bertuzzi landed on him. A freak accident, in other words.

A lot of NHL players—the ones who aren’t trying to be righteous about Bertuzzi–have criticized the instigator rule as a source of the increased stick incidents and intent-to-injure plays. In the bad old days, if a player whacked a high-skill player, an enforcer like Dave Semenko would punch him out. Now the enforcers rarely do that, spending most of their energy trying to coax fellow-enforcers into throwing the first punch so they’ll get kicked out of the game. The result is an increased level of frustration, and a new kind of chippiness.

Besides all this, putting an end to fighting in the NHL, which I’m not really hot for anyway because fighting is the least harmful way of releasing the tensions in an explosively fast game, as been available for years. Here’s how they could do it. 1.)tie a can to the instigator rule and return to the five minute fighting penalties with ten minute misconducts for not stopping when the referees announce that it’s over. For each fight, the league fines the team of the player who throws the first punch—or both if no detectible instigator is to be had.

If the goal is to minimize fights, put the fine on an elevating scale: $5000 for the first one in a team’s season, $10,000 for the second, $15,000 for the third, and so on, until the cost simply becomes prohibitive. If eradicating fighting is the goal, set the per-fight penalty at a level that will make clubs regulate their enforcers. If a coach thinks a punishment fight is necessary or some intimidation will produce a win, then they’ll quickly learn to be more selective about it, and loose cannon players who simply lose it on the ice will quickly find themselves without a contract. $25,000 a fight sounds about right to me, but that may be too low. And if they need to get the NHLPA on board, they could deduct 25 percent of the fines from the NHLPA pension contributions, and give it to anti-violence charities.

I’m not convinced anything this draconian is necessary or wise. But I think getting rid of the instigator rule so that enforcers can protect the skill players would be wise, and fining the clubs for fighting would do wonders in keeping the totally stupid fights at a minimum.

Back to normal programming….

(683 w. March 20, 2004)


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