Rules reduce fighting to sideshows

On the night legendary Boston Bruins forward Cam Neely stepped onto the FleetCenter ice to see his famed No. 8 hoisted to the rafters, the consensus among many in the National Hockey League was that the likes of Neely -- or his game -- would never be seen again.

To many, Neely was a near-perfect hockey player. He could shoot, skate and score with the best the game had ever known. Neely's 395 goals over 10 seasons, including 50 goals in 49 games one campaign, attest to that.

He was also a ferocious competitor. And if that meant dropping the gloves to right a wrong, to defend a teammate or simply to create more room on the ice for him and his teammates, Neely would not only do it, he would do it well.

"It tells you something about what the fans love to see," Neely said of his reputation as a fighter. "That's the way I had to play to be successful and I have to tell you, I miss that part of my life."

It's not that fighting doesn't still happen in the NHL, it does and it's even marginally on the rise. According to figures provided by the National Hockey League, there were 815 fighting majors as of a Jan. 17 vs. 686 at the same point last season. The 815 figure averages out to about 1.3 fights per game, a marginal rise from the 1.1 of a season ago.

Proponents of fighting argue it's part of the game; opponents argue there's no need for it.

But whether the numbers are up or down, one thing is clear: the significance of fighting and the role of the fighter in the NHL has changed.

"I don't know if the game (today) would allow it to take place," Neely said of his now immortalized style of play. "I'm sad to say, if I was playing now, I would be in the penalty box a lot more. I might not be in the game very long."

Both the NHL and the NHL Players' Association acknowledge that fighting is a part of the game, but they disagree on its roll and how it's managed.

The NHL asserts fighting should be taken in context -- it exists and there are rules that penalize players who participate in it.

"There is still a greater percentage of games without a fighting major," said Frank Brown, the NHL's vice president for media relations. "When these events do occur they occupy only a few seconds of the arena or TV experience, meaning it is a very, very, very small part of the game."

The NHL has made sure of that. The league has spent a lot of its time and energy to eliminate as much fighting as possible, especially bench-clearing brawls for which the league used to be infamous.

The NHLPA takes a similar stance on fighting's historical place in the game, but it takes a different tack on the rules.

Rule 56 (a) of the NHL Official Rules, commonly referred to as the instigator rule, calls for a minor penalty to be assessed to a player who instigates an altercation -- even if his opponent is a willing participant -- as well as a major for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. If the player is assessed a second instigator minor in the same game, he also is given a game misconduct, which calls for ejection. A third instigator in the same regular season is accompanied by a two-game suspension, a fourth results in a four-game suspension, a fifth is a six-game suspension. If a player wearing a face shield is deemed the instigator, he's assessed another minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The rule has reshaped fighting in the NHL. Those in favor of it argue that it puts the policing of the game where it belongs, in the hands of the officials and the league. In that regard, the league has used the instigator rule to control fisticuffs. Meanwhile, the players' association has opposed the rule, claiming that it is too punitive, and has asked that it be eliminated or reworked. Its requests have been rebuffed.

Since the NHL also fines suspended players based on their salary -- usually prorated over 180 days, but prorated over 82 games for "repeat offenders" (which fighters usually are) -- they are extremely wary of picking up that third infraction.

"It makes it impossible for a guy to play the role (of enforcer)," said Rob Ray, a longtime on-ice policeman for the Buffalo Sabres and, late in his career, the Ottawa Senators. "If you know you're going to get tossed or that it's going to cost a big chunk of your salary you can't actually do your job the way it used to be done."

That would be the way Neely and a host of others who came before him -- including hockey legends like Gordie Howe, Terry O'Reilly, Jim Schoenfeld, Mark Messier and a young Eric Lindros -- did it.

"Players generally policed themselves," Neely said. "It has always been a sport where you've generally been held accountable for your actions, and not just by the other team, but by your teammates, too."

Before the instigator rule, a policeman did just that; he policed the ice for his team. If a player took liberties with a star player or a player who didn't fight, the policeman (also known as an enforcer) held him accountable. Even a policeman's mere presence served as a deterrent to stick work, overt interference and cheap shots by opponents. That's what made players like Neely such a valuable commodity -- they could be both a policeman and their team's best player. But not all policemen took a judicious approach to their roles, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Sometimes a single player would have three or four fights in one game and go beyond the call of duty, becoming something of an intimidator (also known as a goon).

The instigator rule put a stop to intimidation fights, ones that were numerous, downright vicious and, occasionally, caused serious injury. It also helped the NHL repair its image.

But the instigator rule also handcuffs skilled players who play a physical game, taking away a dimension of their effectiveness. Opponents of the rule also maintain that stick work, questionable hits, interference and other forms of mayhem have risen because guilty parties face only a trip to the penalty box instead of physical retribution.

As a result, the fighting that takes place has been reduced to a sideshow between willing participants. In today's game, in order to avoid being deemed an instigator, one fighter will invite another to a fight. The idea is that if both men are willing participants and neither blatantly instigated the altercation by the usual means -- throwing the first punch on an unsuspecting player, dropping the gloves and challenging, traveling a distance to engage or retaliating for a prior incident -- then neither would incur an instigating penalty and give the other team a power play. Occasionally, a fight will serve a purpose. More often than not, however, the two combatants come out, do battle, and return to the bench, playing only a handful of minutes each game. It's a dance akin to robots serving their masters then retreating to a place both out of sight and out of mind.

Meanwhile, the instigator rule has put an even greater burden on the on-ice officials. Besides consistently interpreting and applying the rules from official to official and game to game -- not an easy task as evidenced by the league's struggles in executing its obstruction crackdown -- officials are expected to correctly gauge and manage the physical and emotional levels of the game. And because players are no longer allowed to police themselves, officials are expected to see and call every infraction correctly.

One example is the Jan. 13 game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres, during which there were frequent high-sticking incidents. Flyers center Jeremy Roenick was ejected from the game after berating an official (and throwing a water bottle in his direction) for not seeing and calling a high stick to his face, which cut his lip and knocked out a tooth. (Roenick was later fined and suspended). Without the instigator rule, someone on the Flyers roster -- arguably Donald Brashear -- would have fought the offending player (or players), thus encouraging that player and his teammates to keep their sticks down. Some would argue the high sticking wouldn't have gotten out of control in the first place given Brashear's presence in the lineup.

Such games also serve as proof of the rule's effectiveness; it eliminates vigilante justice and blatant intimidation, reduces the number of fights and allows the league to discipline players who cause them.

In fact, there was a time before the rule was introduced that the players' association did lobby for a restriction on fighting, noting it was out of control and threatened to overpower the skill elements of the game, as well as the health and well-being of many of its players.

Both sides have a case, and as long as fighting is allowed the debate is how to best manage it.

All of which places the NHL in a difficult position.

Hockey, unlike basketball, football and baseball, does not ban fighting out right. No one ever goes on the record as to why, but it's commonly expressed that the physical element is woven into the fabric of the game and does have a certain fan attraction. The league does not wish to alienate these fans, many of whom grew up knowing the game as somewhat rowdy, always edgy and with an underlying current that could spark into fisticuffs at anytime. At the same time, however, the league walks an ever-shifting line between how much is too much or, perhaps, not enough.

"Therein lies the rock and the hard place," said one general manager who asked not to be identified. "It's a part of the game, but too much of it alienates sponsors and advertisers. And it if gets out of control, well, it's hard to justify to an owner or to fans that your high-paid player is on the sidelines with an injury because he got beat up. At the same time, too little of it, coupled with the fact that scoring is down and you guys (the media) are always arguing that the game is boring and well, the argument is there isn't anything to watch. That's not good either."

Scoring is down and the amount of stifling defensive play is up, some argue way up. In some arenas, that's led to smaller crowds. Some would maintain the slight rise in fighting is something the league finds acceptable while it searches for other ways to make the game more entertaining.

So what's the solution?

Many have been offered, but one that seems to be drawing a bit more attention of late -- perhaps because the current collective bargaining agreement expires in September -- comes from Pierre McGuire, an analyst for the Canadian network TSN and a former NHL coach.

McGuire has a plan, devised mainly to help slow down an alarming rise in the number of injuries to key players, that may curb fighting as well.

In McGuire's NHL, teams would be allowed to dress just 16 skaters (they now dress 18 and two goaltenders). By a process of both need and attrition -- with an automatically shortened bench, all players must be able to contribute -- 60 of the game's lesser skilled players would eventually be eliminated. As a result, the byproduct would be a roster peopled with players better known for their hockey skills than their size or physical toughness. If a player whose only real ability is to cause physical harm is eliminated, then skilled players dominate the rosters of every team and therefore every game.

"I realize that it would mean the elimination of 60 jobs," McGuire said, "but the reality is most of them would be unskilled jobs."

By cutting 60 players, each team's payroll would be reduced, as would the possibility of the league reducing the number of teams -- an oft proposed idea, but never by the league itself.

"I know that (contraction) is being talked about," McGuire said, "but maybe it wouldn't have to happen."

It's impossible to gauge whether or not McGuire's idea will make it to the negotiating table, let alone be part of the next collective bargaining agreement. The same can be said for what will surely be an effort by the Player's Association to revamp the instigator rule.

Even if they did, there is no guarantee that one, the other, or a combination of both would reshape fighting in the NHL.

What is known is that fighting, in some way, shape or form, has always been and likely always will be a part of the game, and that the NHL has always adjusted its rules to both accommodate and contain it.

As a result, a different kind of fighter and a different kind of fighting has emerged.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.