If gross misconducts were called for staged fights, players would be immediately ejected and face a possible suspension. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)
“Gross misconduct penalties shall be assessed where a person conducts him or herself in a manner as to make a travesty of the game.” – Gross misconduct penalty wording in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association Rulebook.
I’m a firm believer that all the rules you need to govern the game of hockey already – or in this case, used to – exist in the rulebook. When the Dead Puck Era was reigning with suffocating obstruction, it didn’t take a set of newly constructed rules to get out of that trench. It took a new standard; a different interpretation of what already existed to change the game. And change it in a significant way.
Further to the point of this article, I enjoy fighting. And I don’t just enjoy it; I think it’s a necessary deterrent, for reasons we can delve into in another column. But we won’t devolve into a debate about the merits of fighting in the game (or sports in general) today because it’s there and always has been, so get over yourself.
This all said: staged fights are awful. Not for any inconsistent and contrived safety concerns, but because it looks and feels like a carnival sideshow. While I enjoy fighting, when they’re staged, they seem shallow and pedantic.
But is it possible to get rid of one kind of fight without coming down on all of them? If we bring back a rule that was removed from the book six years ago, I believe it is, so I’m throwing this idea out for your deliberation.
The gross misconduct was taken out of the rulebook following the 2006-07 season because it had become redundant. It was generally used against coaches for abusive language, but was rarely called and replaced by the game misconduct.
What if we reanimated the gross misconduct and called it on players for partaking in a staged fight?
After floating this idea out on Twitter, most of the feedback was that the grey area between what is and isn’t a staged fight would be too blurry for the rule to function. On the contrary, every rule in the book has a grey area and it’s the job of the referees to decipher a ruling. This is why, in Section 6 of the NHL Rulebook under “Physical Fouls,” minor, major and match penalties all have the preamble, “The Referee, at his discretion, may assess…”
A gross misconduct brings an immediate ejection and review from the commissioner’s office. While you wouldn’t necessarily have to hand out a suspension for each infraction called (although you could set that standard, too), you would certainly sit a guy down after his second or third. The idea is this would start to eliminate cheesy fights 30 seconds into a game or immediately after a faceoff. We generally know a staged tilt when we see it.
Would players find a way around this? Absolutely – they always do. Maybe they bump each other a few times around the rink and in the corner to make it appear less orchestrated. That’s not perfect, but at least the optics are more palatable. And you have to ask yourself: at what point is it not worth the effort to have a marginal player on the roster who takes up ice time to go through these back-door exercises to accomplish a fight?
With the exception of players and coaches, no one has a better feel for what is going on within a game than the referees, who can use that knowledge in applying this rule. Keep it discretionary in the book, rather than trying to define specific scenarios in which to use the gross.
Of course, putting the rule back in the book is one thing and using it is another. Each year, the NHL, like all hockey leagues, focuses on a few rules to crack down on or pay closer attention to, whether it’s head shots, obstruction, boarding, etc. If the league put the gross misconduct back in the book and encouraged its officials to use it, this rule could have a profound impact on the staged fight – and perhaps the mono-skilled player – without affecting the traditional ones. Whatever standard the league communicates to its officials for this rule would determine how often and freely it is used – and that standard can move from year to year depending on how it functions in the practical world and how hungry the league is to eradicate this form of fighting.
Without considering the merits of the entertainment factor, fighting should be there for when emotions boil over or to keep nonsense in check – not for two representative sheriffs who really have no other investment in the game and have to justify their existence. To me, that’s making a travesty of the game and epitomizes the gross.
So, I propose the reintroduction of the gross misconduct, with the following wording:
“A gross misconduct penalty shall be assessed on any player who, at the discretion of the referee, deliberately engages in a fight as to make a travesty of the game.”
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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