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Evolution of instigator penalty altered game

by Dave Lozo

Many believe the 1992-93 NHL season was among the finest staged in the League's history. From the addition of two teams through expansion, to the sudden prominence of European players, to the heroics of Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, to the crowning of Montreal as Stanley Cup champions, the season was full of memorable moments. On its 20th anniversary, will spend the year looking back at the key moments of that '92-93 season to see if it may indeed be the NHL's Greatest Season.

Ask a player, executive, fan or pundit about the NHL's instigator penalty and you're likely to receive a passionate opinion.

A form of the rule has existed as far back as 1937 -- "A Major penalty shall be imposed on any player who starts fisticuffs," the League's rule book read that year -- but it was before the start of the 1992-93 season that the instigator began changing and shaping the NHL that exists today.

"A player deemed to be the instigator of fisticuffs shall be assessed a Game Misconduct," became the official wording of the rule in 1992. It was most recently adjusted in 1996 to levy a two-minute minor, a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct to the guilty party. The rule was designed to curb fighting, which statistics show has steadily decreased during the past 20 years.

The instigator rule draws the ire of some players, the praise of others. It receives simultaneous credit for cleaning up the game and criticism for failing to allow players to police themselves.

But how can a rule that existed before Gordie Howe played his first NHL game get so much credit for both helping and hurting the game during the past 20 years?

To heap all the blame or praise on some new language on a nearly 60-year-old rule doesn't paint the entire picture of that time.

Before Gary Bettman became the NHL's first commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993, the man in charge of the League was interim president Gil Stein. His background included time as the CEO and executive vice president of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s before joining the NHL as a vice president and general counsel. Stein became the League's president after John Ziegler stepped down in June 1992.


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It was during Stein's brief time in power that the instigator rule was updated. Many believe the purpose of the rule was to limit fighting and make the game more attractive for casual fans and television broadcasters.

An Associated Press story published Oct. 4, 1992 said, "With new rules regarding fighting, among other things, the NHL has tried to tone down the violence and build up its image. The idea is to make the game more attractive to borderline hockey fans -- in other words, those that exist in most areas of the United States. That's the main object of acting president Gil Stein, whose stated goal is to make hockey the premier spectator sport in the U.S. before the turn of the century."

The instigator rule is synonymous with attempts to curb violence, but another rule was enacted during the Board of Governors meeting in 1992 that offered a way to help clean up the game.

There was a problem with some NHL teams when it came to player fines. In some cases, when a player had a fine levied against him, the player didn't pay it himself. Instead, teams were paying the fines out of their pockets, thus wiping out one deterrent against illegal activity on the ice.

Starting in 1992-93, a rule was passed that allowed the NHL to fine teams $500,000 if they were caught paying fines for players, a rule that remains today. Since 1992-93, no team has been fined for that transgression.

But it was at that BOG meeting that the discussion of levying a game misconduct against anyone who fights -- not just the instigator of the fight -- first took place. Seven of the 24 teams in the League at that time were in favor, and instead a compromise was reached that resulted in the rule that was passed.

During the following season, players got their acts together in a hurry.

In the six seasons leading up to '92-93, the percentage of fights that included an instigator penalty were as high as 31.7 percent ('86-87) and never lower than 26.1 percent ('87-88). That number dropped to 15.4 percent in '92-93 and dipped to 9.9 percent in '95-96.

While many players adapted to the new, harsher punishment, some players had a harder time getting used to it. One player in particular seemed to have a more difficult time than anyone else.

The name Jim Thomson probably doesn't ring too many bells among even the most fervent hockey fan. A native of Edmonton, Thomson spent parts of seven seasons in the NHL working as an enforcer, a defender of teammates. His career began in 1986 with the Washington Capitals and concluded in 1994 after a stint with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

In 115 career games, he amassed 416 penalty minutes. In '92-93, the first year of the new instigator rule, he compiled 97 penalty minutes in 24 games split between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings and tied for the NHL lead with four instigator penalties despite playing less than a third of the season.

There was an adjustment to be made, but Thomson, who is now an advocate for removing fighting entirely from hockey, felt it was incumbent upon him to defend teammates without worrying about the consequences.

On Jan. 12, 1993, as a member of the Kings, he found himself coming to the aid of future Hall of Famer Paul Coffey and earning an instigator penalty in the process.

"I remember fighting Darcy Loewen in Ottawa when he went after Paul Coffey," Thomson told "Well, hello, I'm not going to wait to square off. I was guilty of jumping the gun. You could say I was an unsure fighter and I jumped guys. I just knew if I was going to fight, I was going to get the jump. There's a code of standing off, but just the situations, like the one with Darcy Loewen, he's trying to fight Paul Coffey. I step in and go after him and sure, I'm going to get an instigator, but I'm not going to let him go after one of my star players.

"It was an adjustment for me."

It was an adjustment for almost everybody in those first two seasons.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, in '92-93, there were 102 instigator penalties called. The following season, the infraction was called 107 times, but the League went from 24 to 26 teams that season, so there were fewer instigator penalties called per game. The number dipped to 63 during the '93-94 season. The 2011-12 season saw the fewest number of instigator penalties called -- 38 -- since the inception of the updated rule.

But Thomson had a harder time adjusting than everyone, and he picked up three of his instigator penalties in a five-game stretch with the Kings, one time coming to the aid of Wayne Gretzky.

"That was my job," Thomson said. "I probably could've used better judgment, knowing I was going to get suspended. But three in five games, that's not a stat to be proud of. But I had a job to do, and I always felt if I was going to fight, I was going to get the jump and fight for my life."

Thomson had the mentality of most players -- they wanted to police themselves on the ice. If a player was going to come after a teammate or star with a dirty hit, they wanted to dispense justice -- and the instigator penalty, they argued, takes away the ability to do that.

But according to Terry Gregson, the NHL's senior vice president and director of officiating, that argument for the abolishing of the instigator rule doesn't hold water.

Gregson was an NHL referee from 1979 to 2004, which means the new instigator penalty came about right in the middle of his career. He refereed in eight Stanley Cup Finals, 158 playoff games and 1,427 regular-season games.

The new rule wasn't just an adjustment for players; officials had to get used to it as well. But it was a rule Gregson believed was necessary at the time, despite its detractors.

"Of course, there were all the immediate naysayers, which is pretty common in hockey," Gregson told "They don't have patience and they always try to find the fault instead of the good. It was a rule we had to bring in because there was a concern that fighting was becoming a pretty big issue in the game, and they didn't want to take the physicality out of the game, but they wanted to get rid of some of that retribution element where I throw a body check on you and another teammate comes over and starts punching away at me. They wanted to address that.

"It was something that everybody was very leery of, but fighting is down since that rule came in. But you're going to get people who say, 'Well, there's more stick work.' Well, I don't think there is more stick work. I think sometimes people want to take things and say, 'This is my perception of it, so let's make it reality.'

"I just think the instigator was to stop that fight that led to other issues, sort of that one brush fire that leads to a forest fire."

"I think something obviously had to be done. There was too much group fighting. Players were leaving the bench to fight and it was getting out of hand."
-- Bobby Clarke

The instigator penalty has become a lightning rod for critics across the years. Gregson said he didn't see any issues with a rule that had been on the books in some form for nearly 60 years. Fighting still exists in today's game, but Gregson said the new instigator rule resulted in the enforcer becoming almost obsolete.

"Once we brought it in, sure, there were some people that had to adjust, no question," Gregson said. "But I think if I talked to scouts and GMs and coaches now, I don't think we have the player now that we had back in the 1980s, where he really wasn't as much of a hockey player as he was an enforcer. Now, the people that are the enforcer-type person, they have to have hockey skills too. You can't shorten your bench by having an enforcer because of the speed of the game."

The League has expanded to 30 teams since '92-93, but Gregson is correct: Fighting is down since then despite the additional players. The number of fights diminished further starting in 2005-06, the first year the League removed the red line, which increased the speed of the game. The greater need for speed lessened the need for players whose main assets were their fists.

According to League statistics, there were 1,561 fighting majors in 2003-04 (1.3 per game). That number fell to 919 in 2005-06 (0.7 per game). In the 2011-12 season, there were 1,089 fighting majors, an average of 0.9 per game.

Though fewer fights is an encouraging statistic to some, to others it's a reason why some players have become more susceptible to dirty hits.

For Gregson, that sentiment doesn't work either.

"My answer to that is, if I run someone from behind, how do I know no one is coming after me?" Gregson said. "If nobody comes after me, that's a conscious decision your teammates made. But if somebody comes after me, they're going to have to kill off a penalty, but if that's going to clear the air and make your team feel better, you do it.

"I don't think the instigator is the root of a lot of the problems they like to say it is."

If there ever was a person who can speak intelligently on fighting in the NHL before and after the instigator rule of '92-93, it's Bobby Clarke.

The Hall of Fame center spent his 15-year career with the Philadelphia Flyers from 1969-84. Clarke was the captain of back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 1974 and 1975 with a team that was affectionately known as the Broad Street Bullies. They didn't literally punch their way to championships, but line brawls and fisticuffs were common on a team with Clarke, Dave Schultz and Andre Dupont.

By the time the summer of 1992 rolled around, Clarke was with the Flyers as senior vice president, a position he holds now. Despite his pugilistic heritage as a player, he was on board with installing the instigator penalty.

"I think something obviously had to be done," Clarke told "There was too much group fighting. Players were leaving the bench to fight and it was getting out of hand."

At the general managers' meeting that summer, Boston Bruins president and general manager Harry Sinden said he wanted to take fighting out of the game completely, and according to Clarke, didn't care what the managers felt about the idea. Sinden was going to take the issue to the Board of Governors.

"He wanted fighting out altogether," Clarke said. "The managers took a vote on it and the managers didn't want that. It went to the governors, and they ended up coming up with the instigator rule. Whoever started a fight was going to get five, 10 and a game misconduct.

"I was on the ground that we shouldn't take fighting out of the game. It was a part of the game that was penalized. Saying the penalty for doing it wasn't enough was a different story than taking it right out of the game. So I didn't mind so much that the penalty for fighting increased, but I certainly didn't want to take it out of the game."

Today, Clarke's feelings on the instigator penalty can be labeled as mixed.

"I think if you took the instigator out, it might help some, but I don't think it's going to stop it," Clarke said. "The game played in those days was much safer than today's game because you were allowed to defend yourself. Your winger was allowed to step in front of guys and protect his teammate by hooking him or interfering with him. The ferocious hitting has increased enormously since the [obstruction] rule changes.

"Taking the instigator out would be a start, but I don't think it'd be enough to stop what's going on."

Whatever your stance may be on the instigator penalty, there's no doubt it helped transform the game during the past 20 years.

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