Commentary

Let rules police NHL? What a concept

Updated: March 11, 2009, 4:29 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

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.

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.

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