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Instigator rule used improperly in Carcillo-Gleason fight

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As fighting in the NHL continues to escalate, league officials are looking for ways to curtail it. Public outcry following the death of Don Sanderson, who died during a fight in a senior league game in Canada, led to contemplation of several changes at the NHL level. Among those changes, some proposed an outright ban of fighting, which you can understand didn't go over so well. Several other ideas, including forcing players to keep helmets on during fights were put in place in some of Canada's junior leagues.

In the NHL, though, the most widely accepted of the proposals was the addition of a ten-minute misconduct for staged fights that take place immediately following a faceoff. General managers around the NHL supported the idea, but the Players' Association quickly scrapped it.

Most agree that fighting in today's game is perfectly fine -- that the Sanderson incident was a freak occurrence. In fact, as tragic as his death was, you'd have to go back 36 years to find another fatality from an on-ice event in all of North America. The players insist that so-called "staged fights" aren't a problem, and as the NHLPA's vote against the aforementioned misconduct penalty proves, the players' opinion counts.

But there is agreement on one thing across the hockey world: the increase in fights following clean hits is a disturbing trend.

"We've had those discussions at coaches' meetings," Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson told the Toronto Star last month. "What's wrong with a clean hit? Why do you have to fight if you've hit somebody clean?"

To stop this trend from continuing, Terry Gregson, the NHL's new Director of Officiating, has decided to order his troops to enforce the oft-ignored instigator rule with greater frequency. Here's Gregson:

It's not new. We're not changing the wording and we're not trying to make every fight an instigator call. But if a player travels (to start a fight), you have to ask 'did someone clearly instigate?' And if so, apply the rule. Now, even when there are clean hits, there seems to be retaliation going on.

The message is clear: if you start a fight after your teammate is hit cleanly, you're going to get called as an instigator. But what about on dirty hits? After all, the purpose of fighting in hockey is to police those who recklessly walk the line between putting a shoulder into a scorer with his head down and a dangerous, illegal, injury-susceptible body check.

Last night, Flyers tough guy Dan Carcillo delivered one of those hits. From behind, he nailed Carolina's Ray Whitney two feet forward into the boards. Whitney was okay, but he took a scary head-first spill toward the dasher. As expected, Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason stood up for his teammate and forced Carcillo to drop his gloves.

Video, after the jump...

 

What you see there is a perfect example of the Code. Carcillo delivered a dangerous check and Gleason made him own up to what he did. It's the players policing themselves, safely and effectively, as they have done for years.

Unfortunately, though, under the new orders from Gregson, the referees sent Gleason to the box for instigating. Instead of what was originally a two-minute minor to Carcillo for boarding, the Hurricanes lost the power play due to the instigation minor, and they lost Gleason for 17 minutes - the two minute minor, five minutes for fighting, and ten minutes due to the mandatory misconduct that goes along with the instigator penalty.

As 'Canes Country points out, defenseman Joe Corvo had to step up and play 30 minutes on the night to compensate, putting the Flyers at a severe advantage after one of their players delivered a dirty, penalty-worthy hit. All of this just because Gleason simply defended a teammate?

Here's former Devils coach Brent Sutter following a similar incident last season:

That to me is a big problem. You’re coming to the aid of a teammate, but you get punished. I’d expect my players to do the same thing. And they will do the same thing. That’s what the game is about. To me, that’s being allowed to police the game as players.

Last night's incident wasn't the first case of the instigator rule being used improperly following proper enforcement of the Code, but with Gregson's new marching orders now put into action, it will happen more and more.

There's no doubt in anybody's mind that unwarranted fights following clean hits need to be stopped, and the proper enforcement of the instigator rule is the ideal solution to that problem. It becomes a separate problem altogether, though, when the rule unfairly punishes players defending their teammates by dictum of the Code.

There's a fine line here, and the NHL needs learn how to walk it.