From the bone-crushing hits to the spearing stick infractions, hockey can be a dangerous sport. Team physicians recorded 559 concussions between the 1997 to 2004 season, often stemming from dangerous and illegal hits by players intending to injure. But recent years, despite rule changes to make the league safer, have paradoxically seen a major increase in head contact penalties, resulting in stars of NHL teams missing multiple games. So where are these dirty hits coming from? It turns out, the rule change proposed by Gary Bettman may be at fault.
Typically, when the team’s star gets hit, the hitter better be ready for a fight. You look at stars like Connor McDavid who get touched by someone and the next shift the player who hit the star would be targeted by one of the teams enforcers. In this video, one of the announcers refers to Connor McDavid as Superman and says “don’t tug on superman’s cape,” meaning Milan Lucic is enforcing the unwritten rule against touching a superstar. Enforcers keep your star healthy and scoring goals for the team by instilling fear in the opposition as a deterrent. During the 1999-2000 season, in the playoff series between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils, Eric Lindros was concussed from a headshot by Scott Stevens. Stevens was feared within the league but Lindros’ teammates did not care. Lindros was a top point leader for the Philadelphia Flyers’ star so they had to stick up for him. Although Stevens, the Devils’ stay-at-home defenceman, hasn’t faced any discipline such as a penalty or a suspension, he has been in many retaliation fights. This action has made him be extra cautious on his hits which didn’t mean he stopped his game-changing hits but instead of aiming for the head he aims for the body now.
Recently, the Vancouver Canucks suffered a huge loss to their lineup as Elias Pettersson was concussed after he was thrown to the ice by Florida Panthers defender Mike Matheson. Matheson was not penalized by any referee but was suspended for two games and was able to skate away freely from any retaliation fights. Sidney Crosby, one of the NHL’s most recognized faces, was also concussed by Matt Niskanen during a blindside hit. Niskanen was not suspended and was able to skate freely. Now that could be a major problem because players like these guys should face some justice like Tom Wilson has. Wilson made an illegal check to the head of Oskar Sundqvist and was thrown out of the game and sentenced to a 20 game suspension missing a quarter of the season.
Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL since 1993, has always had a battle with violence in the league, including retaliation penalties. The instigator rule was always around but never had such harsh outcomes for the player who starts the fight. Recently the league has become more strict on players instigating fights. As of 2015, if a player starts the fight they will be tossed out of the game. Now this was never mentioned in the rule book but was taken into action throughout the start of that season. This could be a factor on why nobody fought Mike Matheson and Matt Niskanen. The official rule states:
A player who is deemed to be both the instigator and aggressor of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting, a ten-minute misconduct (instigator) and a game misconduct penalty (aggressor).
–meaning the person who started the fight will face not only a fighting penalty but also an instigator penalty that ejects him from the game. Many players would choose to play over being kicked out of the game and facing certain consequences. The unintended consequence of this is that dirty players can move freely and do as much harm as they want to, without getting their head kicked in by an enforcer.
The instigator rule could be enforcer’s biggest nightmare and could possibly neutralize the “enforcers” role completely. Many people have voted against this rule but it retains strong support by the league’s commissioner. As for the cheap shotters, they now have free range to a certain extent which players like Tom Wilson, and Mike Matheson have taken advantage of. The league still continues to combat illegal checks but struggles to find the perfect balance of minimizing fighting and and promoting safe hockey overall.