Fraser: Would removing the instigator penalty curb headshots?

Kerry Fraser

5/8/2011 11:06:13 PM

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First of all, I would like to say that you were one of the best referees in the NHL and it was a pleasure to watch games officiated by you.  Recently, with a large amount of head injuries occurring in the league the instigator rule has been discussed in hockey circles as one of the causes of these type of injuries.  Based on your on-ice experience, do you feel that the instigator rule should be removed so that players can "police" the actions of those that deliberately injure other players?

This blog has been great and has given NHL fans some insight into the officiating in the league!


Ajax, ON


There are some who might suggest that like a fine wine; I am getting much more palatable the longer I sit on the retirement shelf but I sure thank you for your kind comments.

I cringe when I hear the “cavemen” who suggest that removing the instigator rule would reduce hits to the head.  Why don't we remove seat belts from cars and take the visors and helmets off players while we are at it? Maybe people would drive more slowly and without head gear players wouldn't play so recklessly.

The suggestion that we reacquire the prototype “6'5” goon” that takes up a roster spot on the end of the bench to go out and fight his counterpart on the other side when liberties are taken is preposterous. How would this reduce head shots? Two monster gladiators banging each other in the head repeatedly during a staged fight until one submits, is knocked unconscious or they fall to the ice can only have grave repercussions to the combatants brain grey matter. The end result, given the new NHL protocol, is they will both likely spend at least 15 minutes in a quiet location under the stands being evaluated by medical experts. Have we already forgotten the irrefutable evidence of CTE found in Bob Probert's brain dissection conducted by the Boston pathologist? While our opinions might differ on whether contact to the head should be allowed medical evidence is not open to debate.

The key word that you mentioned in your question Steve is “police.” Self policing by players isn't the answer. The reduction (and hopefully elimination) of contact to the head of an opponent requires responsible “policing” of the game by League administrators (including the NHLPA) and game officials.

Some positive advances were made through the crafting of Rule 48—Illegal Check to the Head--which provides for a major penalty and game misconduct to be assessed for lateral or blind side hits to an opponent where the principle point of contact is the head.  We saw suspensions and fines result from the enforcement of this rule by the on-ice officials and Colin Campbell's supplementary discipline process this season. While it was a great beginning to the NHL's attempts to slow one aspect of this dangerous culture of hitting, it is head and shoulders away from addressing this terrible problem that faces the game and its players.

The North-South hit to the head of an opponent that is deemed legal (most of the time) and some special hitting zone where the ultimate receiver of a head shot is somehow held responsible is incomprehensible for most.  I always thought that the “hitting zone” was 200 X 85 feet and the manner in which one player hit another and not the location on the ice constituted an infraction or a suspension.

We have seen some confusing happenings during the Stanley Cup Playoffs to this point.  Raffi Torres hit on Brent Seabrook was officially termed a “good hockey play,” while Steve Downie's launch on Ben Lovejoy of Pittsburgh resulted in a one game suspension.  In case you forgot Lovejoy was aware of the impending hit and Downie didn't make contact with Lovejoy's head.  Seabrook on the other hand was looking back for a slow rolling puck behind the net and didn't see Torres on the train tracks. There's that old victim should have known theory. 

Problem is that the inconsistency with which this situation has been handled off the ice results in confusion on the ice for players and referees alike.  In Game 6 of the Chicago-Vancouver series Bryan Bickell, listed at 6'4” and 224 pounds, left his feet and clocked Kevin Bieksa where the principle point of contact was to Bieksa's head. No penalty and certainly no suspension or fine occurred.  I don't blame the referee one bit on these calls or non calls. Are we left to assume this was just another “good hockey play” in that same “hitting zone” that Torres and Downie ventured into?

In attempting to figure out what is legal I came to the conclusion that you can hit an opponent in the head in this special area only if he isn't looking (Seabrook) so long as you kept both skates on the ice (unlike Downie); that was until Bickell destroyed this theory by leaving his feet and making direct contact to the head of Bieksa.  Mixed signals like this make it impossible for the referees to assess these hits on a consistent basis.

The only deterrent will be when players are held accountable (mandatory suspensions = loss of pay) for hits to the head of an opponent. Before that happens it will have to be determined what is allowed and what isn't.  We can only hope that G.M's such as Jim Rutherford, Darcy Regier and others have a voice to redefine legal checking parameters. Stay tuned over the summer because at this point no one really knows for sure.