Anderson: One NHL rule slips through the cracks
Share with others:
Remember those new rules and regulations the NHL adopted for this season, the ones intended to emphasize skill and speed while curbing things that bogged down the game or hurt its image?
Nearly by accident I discovered the league isn't consistently enforcing one of them.
Sunday night, as the press box at Mellon Arena started to fill before the Penguins played Montreal, I was writing about how Canadiens leading scorer and former Penguins player Alexei Kovalev escaped a suspension after an altercation a night earlier with Toronto's Darcy Tucker.
I wondered if Tucker also had faced a review and possible suspension, and that little nagging question led to a couple of days of looking for answers.
An extensive Internet search turned up no reference to Tucker facing any disciplinary action beyond the penalties he received in the game, but my ever-sharp Post-Gazette colleague, veteran hockey writer Dave Molinari, thought to check the NHL official rules.
Tucker had received a two-minute instigator minor penalty, a five-minute fighting major penalty and a 10-minute misconduct penalty at 17:55 of the third period of Montreal's 6-2 win. A new subsection of Rule 56(a) covers just such a situation.
It stipulates the three penalties that Tucker received when a player is deemed to be an instigator in the final five minutes of regulation or anytime in overtime. So far, so good.
It further calls for "an automatic one-game suspension. ... In addition, the player's coach shall be fined $10,000." There is also a parenthetical note stating that, "No team appeals will be permitted either verbally or in writing regarding the assessment of this automatic suspension."
So why couldn't I find any reference to a one-game suspension for Tucker and a $10,000 fine for Toronto coach Pat Quinn?
I took my question to some other conscientious veteran hockey guys, a few of the off-ice officials who have been working Penguins games for several years. They agreed that it seemed, on paper, as if the suspension and fine were warranted.
Toronto had a game Sunday night at New Jersey. When the rosters and running box score became live on the NHL's Web site, Tucker was listed as an active player. In fact, he had two assists in the Maple Leafs' 4-3 loss.
I was stumped.
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."
I agree strongly with the purpose for the new rule. I certainly don't have anything against Tucker or Quinn, and I'm willing to believe they weren't motivated by goonism Saturday night.
But I can't condone the NHL -- or any sports league, or any business, for that matter -- deciding when it will or won't enforce its written rules.
I called Campbell.
"That's our fault as far as printing the rule properly," Campbell said. "We didn't actually put that caveat at the end."
He meant the one where the automatic, non-appealable suspension and fine only stick if he feels they are deserved.
Campbell said he has rescinded suspensions and fines relating to that instigator rule "about three times," and that teams were sent a memo earlier in the season noting that he would review such instigator incidents and decide whether to uphold the suspensions and fines. None of that information has been made public until now, in contrast to the NHL's campaign in the fall to tout its new rules.
The new portion of the instigator rule, which was written by the league's competition committee, was patterned after one that has been effective in junior hockey, Campbell said, adding that he feels it is working in the NHL.
"We've had a lot less crap in the last five minutes [of games]," he said, adding that he abhors "'Slap Shot' hockey" in the NHL.
So do I.
I think a league likewise stands to lose credibility if it quietly bends its own rules or enforces them differently from the way they are presented to fans.
"Maybe we'll go back and print it better or go back to the way it was before because there's too much gray area, or maybe we'll go with the way it's printed and I won't have the option of waiving the suspension and fine," Campbell said. "We'll try and make it clearer next year."
That's all I'm asking.
First Published March 30, 2006 12:00 am