Ineffective Headshot Rule Signals Time To Eliminate Instigator Rule

It seems that the NHL’s Rule 48 on illegal checks to the head, instituted three years ago to curb concussions, isn’t working according to new research from Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.

The study found that the frequency of head injuries actually went up since the rule was implemented in the 2010-2011.

A year before the rule was introduced there were 77 head injuries, which includes concussions, suspected concussions, and facial fractures. Despite rule 48 being implemented the following year, the study found that, that number had risen to 120 in 2010-2011, and then to 126 in 2011-2012.

“Concussions remain a serious risk for NHL and OHL players. Despite recent actions taken by the NHL to introduce Rule 48 regulating bodychecking to the head, concussion incidence among NHL hockey players has not decreased. Both the scope and enforcement of this rule may need to be addressed in both leagues, or else other changes will need to be introduced to the game in order to reduce injury among elite hockey players.” Concluded authors Laura Donaldson, Mark Asbridge, and Michael D. Cusimano.

What does all this illegal hits to the head and concussion talk have to do with enforcers? In my book, everything.

With enforcers like Marty McSorley looming behind him, Wayne Gretzky was able to become the greatest hockey player of all time without fear of concussions. (Phil/Flickr)
With enforcers like Marty McSorley looming behind him, Wayne Gretzky was able to become the greatest hockey player of all time without fear of concussions. (Phil/Flickr)

Back in the 1980’s and very early 90’s, fighting served more of a purpose than just trying to spark your teammates and get the crowd going. Back then, if anyone even so much as looked at guys like Wayne Gretzky the wrong way – let alone execute a hit to his head – enforcers  like Marty McSorley would make you their personal punching bag and give you a beating you wouldn’t soon forget. The rule was simple and unspoken, if you run my teammates I’m going to make you pay for it.

And how did that system work? Just look back to the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. How many times did you see either of those Hall-of-Famers take a devastating hit to the head? Not many, if any.

Then, in 1992, the league – fed-up with its boxing-like image and wanting to highlight the skills of its players to grow the sport – introduced the controversial instigator rule. The instigator rule adds an additional two-minute minor penalty to the player who starts a fight, effectively curtailing and limiting the traditional role of enforcers.

Eighteen years later, in the 2010-2011 season, dirty hitting, especially those to the head, is running rampant despite league rules against it. That year, in the Winter Classic, superstar and NHL golden boy Sidney Crosby took a hit to the head from Dave Steckel that was widely accepted as a cheap shot. Steckel skated away from that incident with seemingly not a care in the world.

Crosby has since struggled with concussion injuries, and the longevity of his career has even come into question.

Simply put, the NHL cannot have its most elite players ending their careers early and missing time with serious concussions because guys like Steckel are not afraid to target the head.

If that incident had occurred in the era of the Great One, Steckel would have quickly had his face turned into mincemeat and would likely be very hesitant to execute a cheap shot like that a second time.

Unfortunately, players now have to live with the instigator rule and, as shown by the study on checks and concussions, an ineffective rule on illegal hits to the head.

Clearly, the instigator rule needs to be eliminated from hockey and the language of rule 48 needs to be reworked.

The new-age anti-fight proponents in hockey – who seemingly want nothing more but to change every aspect of our beloved sport – will likely rip their own hair out at this suggestion. To them I say: Eliminating fighting in hockey completely clearly isn’t going to happen in this lifetime, why not return to a time when fighting actually served a purpose instead of what it is today, a spectacle put on for fans.

We almost lost Crosby, who’s next?