Commentary

Will GMs' proposal have desired effect?

Updated: March 10, 2009, 9:00 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NAPLES, Fla. -- The NHL isn't interested in taking fighting out of the game, but the league is interested in weeding out some unsavory aspects of dust-ups.

NHL GMs will recommend that, next season, players who stage fights -- dropping the gloves immediately after a faceoff -- be handed a 10-minute misconduct as well as the traditional five-minute major for fighting.

Further, the NHL also will crack down on players who start fights after they, or a teammate, have been hit by more aggressively calling the instigator penalty, which carries a two-minute minor penalty and a 10-minute misconduct. Players who start fights while wearing a visor also will routinely be assessed an instigator penalty (that rule is on the books already, but the infraction is rarely called).

The recommendations will go to the NHL's competition committee, then to the board of governors. NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly told ESPN.com on Tuesday that the players' association plans to invite enforcers to Toronto this summer to get their perspective on the issue before it embraces the proposed changes.

The bottom line is that the number of fights, on the rise this season, seems destined to decline if these changes do take effect. Just how dramatic the drop-off will be might say a lot about whether the debate over fighting fades into the distance.

League disciplinarian Colin Campbell pointed out that before the league imposed a penalty and suspension for fights in the last five minutes of games, 24 percent of all fights took place at the end of games. Since the introduction of that rule, just 4 percent of fights take place at the end of games.

"I guess our goal is not to reduce fighting but to make it safer, to make it the right type of fight. If that reduces fights, so be it," Campbell said.

If, as many GMs believe, fighting is a kind of thermometer measuring the blood pressure of the game, these changes represent a tweaking of that monitoring system. "That thermostat needs to be changed from time to time," Washington GM George McPhee said.

Although GMs are almost unanimous in their belief that fighting is an integral part of the game, they are likewise united in their belief that having two guys drop the gloves at the start of a play -- fighting by appointment or staged fighting -- should be curtailed.

"I don't understand them, but I don't like them," Toronto GM Brian Burke said.

"I'm kind of offended by the fact that it's a staged fight," Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough said. "I think fighting is a reactionary thing. When you say 'staged,' it's not much of a reaction."

It happens a lot. NHL officials said 21.6 percent of the 500 fights from this season studied by the league through early February were of that nature.

Now, the fact most players who engage in these fights don't play a lot might mean the number won't decline at all. And there is the issue of how referees will determine whether a fight is staged. If the fight starts at the drop of the puck, that's obvious; but how long does a play have to go on before a fight isn't considered staged? That will be up to the referees' discretion.

The recommendation to raise the number of instigator penalties called stems from a rash of fights this season after hits, clean or otherwise, on players. Burke said that, in the past, fights of this nature generally came after a goaltender or star player had been checked.

"Recently now, it's gone to, you hit Joe Schwartz and you've got to fight somebody. We never worried about protecting Joe Schwartz before," Burke said. "I don't get that; that's one thing I never understood. So I like the recommendations. Start calling the instigator penalty with greater frequency and we'll have less of this foolishness."

Through Monday's games, just 36 instigator penalties had been called this season in connection with 609 fights. That number should rise dramatically because the number of retaliatory fights, especially after clean hits, has been on the rise.

"I don't know why it's happened, but there's more of it," Risebrough said.

Campbell said the league will take care of meting out justice if there are illegal hits.

"Players do not need to deal with it," Campbell said. "If they feel they have to deal with it, they should be penalized with the right penalties."

He noted a recent incident involving Ottawa's Jason Spezza, who took exception to a hit Calgary's Dion Phaneuf put on teammate Dany Heatley.

If Spezza "decides to take things into his own hands, he should be penalized -- two for instigation, two for instigating with a shield on, five for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. So the correct penalties are applied," Campbell explained.

Over the past two seasons, there have been six suspensions for instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a game. Over the past 15 seasons, there have been 26 suspensions for accumulating three instigator penalties in one season, although 11 of those suspensions came in the first two seasons the rule was in place.

Players currently face a two-game suspension if they are assessed three instigator penalties. Burke would like to see players have to accumulate five instigator penalties before a suspension, although Campbell was skeptical of that proposal's getting much traction.

The one element of the fighting debate that will remain under discussion is how to improve the safety of players. The GMs did not recommend that players be forced to keep their helmets on during fights, although it's possible that will become the rule down the road.

GMs did recommend that linesmen move in more quickly to stop fights if one player looks as if he is at some sort of disadvantage rather than waiting for a natural break in the fight.

If these changes do drive down the number of fights, then the majority of fights that do take place will be so-called "pure" fights, fights that arise spontaneously out of some element of the game. For the GMs, that's a pretty good balance.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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