If you haven’t already, watch this fight after the opening puck drop in a Rangers-Devils game.
Tell me that wasn’t entertaining.
But now, Colin Campbell and the NHL are discussing a new rule in which refs can hand out instigators for players who fight within the first five minutes of the game.
It’s an awful proposal, one I don’t think will carry much, if any, clout with players and coaches.
It makes sense to hand out instigators in the final five minutes of the game. In games where one team is already getting blown out, you want to finish the game as quickly as possible. Remember back in 2008, when the Oilers and Canucks faced off on Hockey Night in Canada. With just nine seconds left in the game and the Canucks on their way to a 4-2 win, a total of 96 penalty minutes were handed out, including eight fighting majors and five misconducts. Even Jim Hughson, who called the game, sounded irritated. “They really should’ve just run the clock,” he said.
But the context between the Rangers and Devils brawl was completely different. John Tortorella defended his move by saying it was Peter DeBoer who set the tone by putting his tough guys on the ice. DeBoer said the incident stems from a game way back in early February, when the Rangers used the same strategy against the Devils. Tortorella started the game at MSG with Brandon Prust and Mike Rupp, to which DeBoer responded by starting Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen. It took just two seconds before the sticks were dropped and the gloves thrown aside.
It should be noted that both coaches had their team’s best interests at heart. They were trying to protect their best players. Brandon Dubinsky wouldn’t have switched places with defenceman Stu Bickel if Tortorella thought Dubinsky (more a grappler than a fighter) could handle Carter, Janssen, or Boulton. Or maybe the motivation was much more obvious, and Tortorella thought that Dubinsky was more valuable on the ice scoring goals than sitting for five minutes in the box. Tortorella was visibly annoyed by the fights to start the game, but even one of the NHL’s most vocal coaches knew that it was part of the game, and bit his tongue. I can’t think of a single coach who would reprimand his players for starting the game that way, even if they didn’t like it. (You just don’t want to be caught in the same situation Bryan Murray was in five years ago, when his skill line of Spezza, Heatley, and Alfredsson found themselves facing off against the Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta and Andrew Peters.)
The Rangers and Devils have a rivalry that goes back decades. The events in that February 7 game were not forgotten by either team. Fights were bound to happen, and I’m glad that they got rid of the extracurriculars early so hockey can be played. The worst thing that you can do is to let those frustrations and emotions build to a point where all hell may break loose.
Fighting is a way to soothe those high emotions. It’s why they let the players do it – to settle old scores, to allow players to vent their frustrations in a controlled environment. There is a certain amount of vigilantism in hockey that isn’t featured in any other sport. It’s what makes hockey unique. How many times have we seen a basketball player look at the ref in disbelief when he thinks he’s been fouled? It rarely happens in hockey, and when you do gripe at the refs, you quickly get labeled as a whiner, even if you’re the best player in the game, as Sidney Crosby can attest to.
In hockey, you settle your own scores. If Colin Campbell wishes to use the Rangers-Devils game as a scapegoat, as an example of how fighting is bad for hockey, then his strongest argument should be that staged fights must stop.
But it’s hard to find anybody who wasn’t excited by the line brawl. Campbell’s kidding himself if he thinks players, coaches, and fans don’t like that kind of stuff. It’s too bad that such instances in sport get so politicized, but it’s also what happens when the game is misunderstood, attacked by those concerned by the “health” of the game.
Would the game have been any different with the instigator rule implemented in the first five minutes of the game? I doubt it. Janssen, Boulton, Rupp, and Prust would’ve dropped their gloves at one point or another. Anybody who thought otherwise was kidding themselves. The instigator rule sure didn’t deter the Oilers and Canucks from brawling with nine seconds left. What’s the difference between dropping the gloves three seconds into the game rather than five minutes into the game? It only delays the inevitable.