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Let rules police NHL? What a concept

3/11/2009 - NHL

NAPLES, Fla. -- The NHL may be the only professional sports league that consistently turns to its own rulebook to significantly change its product.

It did so coming out of the lockout when, after many unfulfilled promises to clean up hooking and obstruction and slashing, the NHL actually got down to business and introduced a new standard of calling penalties: in essence, for the first time, calling fouls that were already in the books.

The result has been nothing less than stunning.

No Quit In Brian Burke

One of the great constants of these annual GMs meetings is Toronto GM Brian Burke presenting a series of proposals for change within the game. And just as surely as Monday will follow Sunday, those recommendations are summarily dismissed.

Equally constant, though, is Burke's unwillingness to be cowed by yet another series of defeats.

Think Don Quixote, and you'll have an idea of Burke's efforts to introduce a change to the collective-bargaining agreement that would allow teams to retain a portion of a player's salary in an effort to spark more player movement.

Once again, the issue was raised. Once again, the issue was squashed like a tiny bug.

"The Big Kahuna said it's not going to happen and I should stop bringing it up," Burke said Wednesday, referring to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

So, what about next year?

"It will be on next year's agenda," Burke insisted happily.

The Toronto GM, who in another lifetime was Bettman's right-hand man in the NHL's head offices in New York, pointed out he did get one of his motions passed.

Television timeouts must now be taken within their prescribed window in each period, regardless of whether a stoppage in play comes after an icing call. Burke had complained that sometimes the television timeouts were getting compressed late in the period, ruining the flow of the game.

"I got it through, so that's a huge victory, a massive, massive change. I can see a statue for this somewhere down the road," Burke said.

The other Burke proposal is penalties in overtime should be one minute as opposed to two minutes. It is being tested in the American Hockey League this season. "That has support," Burke said. "We'll continue to watch it."

Speaking of getting trumped, Detroit GM Ken Holland's eminently logical proposal that the first tiebreaker for playoff positioning should be the number of regulation wins as opposed to total wins got little support.

"It was discussed in a group meeting and really got voted down in the small group meeting," Holland said. "From a fan's standpoint, it's easier to look at the wins, losses and know that the team with the most wins has got the first tiebreaker."

-- Scott Burnside

That standard has been adopted by leagues all the way through the hockey system. Players from the ground up learn to play without the hooking, holding and interference that were a staple of the NHL game for years. As a result, the game is as fast as it has ever been and, for the most part, a treat to watch.

Now, the NHL is once again looking at its own rulebook in addressing the contentious issue of fighting.

When you talk fighting, fans immediately assume it's about either having it or not, but it's much more complicated as these past three days of discussion by the league's GMs have proved.

Assuming the competition committee and board of governors agree with the GMs' recommendations, the league will add a 10-minute misconduct to staged fights next season in the hopes of reducing them (although, for most of the knuckle-draggers who engage in these kinds of fights, it's just a matter of sitting on a different bench for the time after the fight). Still, fair enough to try to dislodge one of the more senseless elements of the fighting spectrum.

The real issue the NHL is promising to tackle vis-a-vis fighting is the plan to more vigorously enforce the already existing instigator rule.

The fact the instigator penalty, which carries a two-minute minor penalty plus an additional two minutes if the instigating player wears a visor, has been rarely called speaks to the culture of frontier justice, which sets the NHL apart from every other pro sports league.

It is both an endearing quality of the league and the game, and one that has baffled critics for years. Although the rules stated otherwise, there was a tacit agreement within the game that the players should be allowed to police themselves, at least to a certain degree when it came to things like fighting.

The impetus to really start calling these penalties comes from a disturbing trend that has seen clean bodychecks followed almost immediately by challenges to fight, either by the player checked or his teammates.

Tuesday night was a prime example of this.

Jay McKee of the St. Louis Blues laid out Mark Parrish of the Dallas Stars with a devastating open-ice hit. McKee was not penalized, but was immediately set upon by Stars forward Brian Sutherby. The two fought, and Sutherby was assessed a two-minute penalty for instigation, five minutes for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct.

Now, for our purposes, it would have been better had the Blues scored on the power play, but they didn't. They did, however, beat the Stars 5-2 in a game that was crucial to both teams' playoff hopes.

While you can understand the genesis of Sutherby's decision -- his teammate lying prone on the ice -- the fact his team had to play short-handed for his actions will perhaps serve as a cautionary tale down the road when something similar happens. As long as the NHL has the will to change the culture of how these penalties are called -- and history shows the league can effect change when that will exists -- then at some point players will stop chasing down an opposing player every time there's a bodycheck.

"You've got to take a hit like a man," Chicago GM Dale Tallon said.

As with obstruction, the league has a long way to go in its attempt to change the culture of fighting.

There were 11 games on the NHL schedule Tuesday night. There were fights in seven of those games, 11 bouts in all. Sutherby's was the only instance where the instigator penalty was called.

"We used the existing rules to deal with the officiating standard and open up the game and emphasize speed and skill," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters as the GMs meetings broke up Wednesday. "These are tweaks around the edges. I think this is something that the managers have historically done when we need to make an adjustment in terms of how the rules are being enforced or interpreted. We get incredibly good, accurate feedback from this group and I think that's what we got here."

Letting the rules police the game. What a concept.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.