NAPLES, Fla. - The National Hockey League appears ready to curb fighting in the game.
Even though the majority of the league's general managers believe fighting has its place in the sport, they have decided to make recommendations that will almost certainly lower the number of fights in NHL games.
The GMs have proposed that a 10-minute misconduct penalty be given to players who engage in staged fights right after a faceoff. They'd also like to see the instigator rule be more strictly enforced, particularly in cases where a player wearing a visor initiates a fight or a player drops the gloves after a teammate has been bodychecked.
The recommendations come at a time when the issue of fighting in hockey has found itself back in the public spotlight following the tragic death of Ontario senior men's league player Don Sanderson. The renewed attention is the primary reason the GMs chose to examine fighting so closely during their annual meetings.
"I think everybody was comfortable in the room that the reason for it is accountability, the reason for it is driving respect," Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough said Tuesday. "The thermometer in the game, so to speak."
If the proposed rule changes are accepted by the competition committee and board of governors, they will take effect next season.
The impact could be dramatic.
Of the first 500 fights this season, the NHL says 108 occurred right after a faceoff. Another 118 came in instances where a player was responding to a teammate getting hit.
That number has risen sharply over the years because of the trend where players seem to fight after almost any of their teammates gets bodychecked. In the past, that kind of response was usually only reserved for times when a star player was taken out.
"Recently now it's gone to you hit Joe Schwartz and you've got to fight somebody," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "We never worried about protecting Joe Schwartz before. I don't get that, that's one thing I never understood.
"So I like the recommendations, start calling the instigator penalty with greater frequency and we'll have less of this foolishness."
It could also result in some serious time in the penalty box.
Under the proposed rules, Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza would have received 19 minutes on one play for his actions in a game last week. Spezza fought Calgary's Dion Phaneuf in response to a clean hit on Dany Heatley and would essentially be given four penalties for that next season - two minutes for instigating, two minutes for instigating with a visor, five minutes for fighting and an automatic 10-minute misconduct.
While that seems pretty steep, Burke doesn't think it will completely curb fighting.
"If I'm the GM in Ottawa my response is we will take that penalty," he said. "We will kill that penalty if it is a star player."
As part of their analysis on fighting, the general managers also discussed the merits of instituting a rule similar to the Ontario Hockey League that would force players to keep their helmets on during a fight.
A decision was made to revisit that issue down the road - in part because they're not sure exactly what to do with players who wear visors.
"Safety was a really big concern by the whole group," said Risebrough. "But it's a complex problem in trying to mandate helmets. We're concerned about it but I think it needs a little bit more discussion (and) evolution a little bit in terms of more games."
The proposal was unpopular with at least one of the league's tough guys
"The GMs need to find ways to make fighting safer instead of taking fighting out of the game, said Canadiens forward Georges Laqaque from Montreal. "With the instigator rule, you have more cheap shots in the game than ever. Having a 10 minute misconduct won't stop that. They should look at helmets or whatever to make it safer, not more penalties."
Besides fighting, very few of the other proposals seem to have gained much traction.
The GMs talked about the NHLPA's request for a specific penalty covering blows to the head and decided it wasn't something they want to formally support.
However, the players still intend to take that proposal to the competition committee in June. That group is comprised of 10 members - five players, four GMs, one owner - and needs seven votes to pass a rule.
Essentially, the union needs to convince two members to support a specific rule covering headshots.
"In my judgment it's simply not enough to rely on supplementary discipline," NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said from Toronto. "Supplementary discipline alone has not addressed the issue."
It appears that another of his proposals has an even greater chance of entering the rulebook.
During his address on Monday, Kelly asked that a player be allowed to receive five instigator penalties in a season before getting suspended for two games. A player is only able to receive three before being punished now.
With more instigator calls likely to be made next season following Tuesday's recommendation, that change could gather some support.
Burke, for one, doesn't mind his players instigating fights as retribution for other things that happen during a game. He's among the group that views fighting as a way for players to police themselves on the ice.
"The rat factor really bothers me," he said. "There are some players in this league who think they don't have to answer for anything.
"So if they get to go to five (instigator penalties) before they are suspended, I will like that."
One thing he won't miss is seeing so many heavyweights drop the gloves and square off immediately after a faceoff.
It's a sentiment that seems to be shared by his peers. Even though the general managers believe fighting is an essential part of the game, they want to guard against it becoming a sideshow.
"I'm kind of offended by the fact that it's a staged fight," said Risebrough. "I think fighting is a reactionary thing. When you say staged, it's not much of a reaction."
Added league disciplinarian Colin Campbell: "If it's staged, why are we doing it? If it's staged, let's do it between periods."