This isn’t a post on fighting’s place in hockey. So let’s put that argument aside for now.
This post is about targeting and coming down on gratuitous and, sometimes, dangerous nonsense. The Ray Emery mauling of Braden Holtby is the obvious jumping off point – no reasonable person (pro- or anti-fighting) wants these over-the-top transgressions to go unpunished.
And there is a simple way to tackle these happenings that the rulebook doesn’t adequately address: bring back the gross misconduct, encourage referees to use it and support them from the league level when they do.
Here is the wording of the gross misconduct as it appears in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association rulebook. The gross was removed from the NHL’s book after the 2006-07 season:
“Gross misconduct penalties shall be assessed where a person conducts him or herself in a manner as to make a travesty of the game.”
The reason why the gross was removed in the first place was that it had become redundant. It had been replaced by the game misconduct and was mostly being used on coaches. But if you slide the gross misconduct back in to the referees’ arsenal, it can cover a host of situations.
Take the Emery debacle as an example. Referees are very vocal with the players on the ice and on the benches all game long, sometimes acting as a conscience on the shoulder, whispering (or yelling) reminders of the consequences as tempers flare. In this situation, as Emery was pounding on the Capitals goalie, referee Francois St. Laurent could have been warning Emery to knock it off, or else get the gross, which is a hefty penalty.
The result of the gross misconduct is straightforward: an automatic ejection from the game and mandatory supplemental discipline review. Not every gross would have to lead to a suspension, but this would be much better optics for the league. The gross, hypothetically, would be encouraged to be used in situations where the league comes out looking its worst – and then the league itself would follow it up with supplemental discipline that matches how seriously it wants to rid the game of a specific occurrence. Of course, it has to be willing to suspend situations like the Emery one.
The gross wouldn’t be used for hits from behind, head checks, or those types of plays – there are plenty of options for those already, from two minutes, to five, to a match penalty. But it could be used for staged fights, or defenseless ones, like the Emery situation. Rather than defining specific scenarios in which to use the gross, it should be a discretionary call for the referees. Want to call it against two players who just took each other’s helmets off before going at it? That rule circumvention could absolutely be construed as a travesty to the game and a perfect example of a situation you likely wouldn’t get suspended for, but at least you’d be removed from that game.
Bringing back the gross would cut down on the nonsense nobody in their right mind thinks has a place in hockey, because the penalty is immediate and severe. It’s also a nice one-size-fits-all addition that should help address a few unwelcome actions, without having to come up with rule tweaks, or new rules altogether.
The key, though, would be for the NHL to support the referees and not cut them down for using it. If no supplementary discipline action is ever taken at the league level after a gross is called, or if the definition of the gross ever became too specific, it would become a penalty no referee would want to call. Then, over time, it would become phased out.
This is what happened to the gross the first time around. But it’s a necessary rule to enforce the unwritten or grey areas of the game when they get out of control.
The gross misconduct needs to be brought back. It never should have left in the first place.