Last night's fight between Evgeni Malkin(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) of the Detroit Red Wings left us hoping for two things. First, that the influx of North American-born former NHL goons into Russia's hockey league (Chris Simon(notes), etc.) will spawn a new generation of Eastern European brawlers that don't knock themselves down with a missed punch (Geno) or look like they're playing the bongos (you know who).
Our second hope is that the NHL dramatically clarifies, or altogether trashes, its "automatic suspension for an instigator in the last five minutes" rule after this season. Because no matter what sort of deterrent it may be for the shenanigans of headhunting thugs at the end of blowouts, it's also making the League look amateurish in its inconsistent application.
In some cases, downright idiotic.
It is a rule to prevent the kind of thuggery and frustration spilling that Malkin displayed. The punishment fits.
Except in the NHL, which includes out clauses with its rules. This suspension can be reviewed by Colin Campbell, the NHL's executive vice president and director of hockey operations, who certainly doesn't have anything riding on Malkin, the potential MVP, no, sir, and wouldn't at all let his decision be compromised by the quality of the player involved, no way, no how, because he is a fair and impartial jury of one, yes, indeed.
Passan's a general sports columnist, and a good one, and he's not going to be alone in seeing the NHL's Wheel of Discipline as a star-struck kangaroo court; bending and stretching its rules like poorly written science fiction in order to achieve the results it feels are in the best interests of the League.
First off: Should the NHL have wiped Malkin's "automatic" suspension from the books for Game 3 in Pittsburgh Tuesday night?
If we weren't saddled by this ridiculous rule from the NHL, the answer would be a simple but emphatic "no." Nothing Malkin did before, during or after the fight is a suspension-worthy action -- not even those first clumsy shots with his gloved fist.
The problem is that the NHL has this instigator rule on its books, and reading Colin Campbell desperately attempt to claim it has no validity in the Malkin case was embarrassing last night:
Rule 47.22 states: "A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation in the final five minutes or at any time in overtime shall be suspended for one game, pending a review of the incident. The director of hockey operations will review every such incident and may rescind the suspension based on a number of criteria. The criteria for the review shall include, but not be limited to, the score, previous incidents, etc..."
Following that review, Campbell said: "None of the criteria in this rule applied in this situation. Suspensions are applied under this rule when a team attempts to send a message in the last five minutes by having a player instigate a fight. A suspension could also be applied when a player seeks retribution for a prior incident. Neither was the case here and therefore the one game suspension is rescinded."
"When a team attempts to send a message" is code for "when a team sends a goon out to start a fight"; and no, that can't be applied here. Especially after seeing Malkin fight.
But Zetterberg is one of the players checking Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin into oblivion. He's a reigning Conn Smythe winner for his defensive prowess. That Malkin picked him out of the pile is no coincidence, no mistake. It may not specifically be "retribution for a prior incident," but it sure as hell was a message being sent about the frustration Malkin's feeling this series.
Did Malkin deserve an instigator? Yes, even if the spear-and-Chris-Osgood-embellishment sparked the melee.
A suspension? No by logical standards; maybe, by the letter of the NHL's law.
The referees don't exactly hand out instigator rules like free candy. From the NHL this year:
An instigator penalty has been called on only six percent of the 609 fighting majors called this season (through early March). Thirty percent of fights in the 1980s had an instigator penalty called.
So we come back to the inequity of this rule, which was adapted from a similar rule in the ECHL after the lockout. Shelley Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about it in 2006, after an incident with Darcy Tucker and Pat Quinn of the Leafs:
An exchange of e-mails with the league public relations office brought me this explanation: "The new rule was adopted to deter the type of fighting and goonish nonsense toward the end of games that is not spontaneous, that results from the choice of players a coach sends onto the ice, and that is meant to send a message or retaliate for something earlier in the game. NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell had rescinded the suspension and fine because, by his interpretation, the fight was purely spontaneous and Tucker and Quinn did not engage in the behavior the new rule was designed to stop."
And yet spontaneity is mentioned nowhere in Rule 47.22. Wacky.
At worst, the NHL looks like it's writing another set of rules for its star players. At best, the NHL isn't fairly applying its rules to playoff games because they "mean more" than regular season games. Scott Walker's(notes) sucker punch on Aaron Ward(notes) in the Carolina Hurricanes vs. Boston Bruins series, for example, would have been a guaranteed, no questions asked one-game suspension in the regular season (and perhaps more).
There are really three good solutions to avoid having the NHL look absolutely foolish in the application of what it deems is an "automatic" suspension ...
1. Amend Rule 47.22 to clearly spell out what is, through its actions, the NHL's interpretation of the law: Suspensions will be upheld if the incident involves a player with a track record of lawless behavior, if the fight is not spontaneous and/or if the loss of that player for the following game is determined to be bad for the League. In all other cases, the suspension is not "automatic."
2. Get rid of the suspensions altogether and pump up the financial penalties for instigators at the end of games for the players and coaches. That way, we have none of this folly with the Malkin affair.
3. Dump the instigator altogether, because it's an inconsistently enforced rule that creates more damage than it prevents.
Oh, and when they're done fixing the rulebook, perhaps an explanation as to how a decision that usually takes about 24 hours was made in about 24 minutes last night by Colin Campbell. Gotta love the irony of the NHL expediting its legal process in the Stanley Cup Finals as it tries to wait out the clock in a Phoenix courtroom.