Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Rats Are Taking Over

I normally don't discuss rodents on HBIC, but Brian Burke made waves a couple of days ago with his comments about "rats". No, not the little mammals to the left, but the agitators and game-disturbers who have seemingly taken over the game. I won't lie that the number of true enforcers - guys like Probert, McSorley, Grimson, and Domi - are on a sharp decline. Burke's comments about the rats taking over came after Leaf tough guy Colton Orr was waived by the Leafs and sent to the AHL Marlies. Burke's chatter about the "rats" was in regard to the declining numbers of tough guys who no longer police the ice and keep the game clean.

Everyone who has watched the game since the early 1980s can see how the game has evolved. The "rats" that Burke is referring to are the guys who make life miserable for other players by playing in the gray areas - the chirping, the cheap shots, and the turtling when they are challenged for their misdeeds. These guys were few and far between before 1990 when the enforcers kept the game clean.

In the good ol' days, if you broke "the code", you paid for it by defending yourself and your honour. If you didn't, the enforcer on your team would stand in for you, but you would hear about it the moment that the enforcer made it back to the bench or got to the dressing room. No one likes to get punched out for stupidity, and the rats were the ones who were doing stupid things.

Fast forward to today, and the rats have been allowed to skate freely amongst the stars, throwing elbows and slashes and what-have-you to try and get the stars off their games. The enforcers have essentially been handcuffed with the instigator rule, so they no longer can be sent out to do their jobs without the fear of being penalized or suspended. If a player is sitting in the press box because he's been suspended or is a liability due to penalties, there's a good chance that his job is in serious jeopardy.

With the speed of the game having seriously increased over the last thirty years as well, the number of what I call "pseudo-fights" - clean hits that result in a fight - have also seen a sharp increase. There's nothing wrong with a devastating clean hit. If a player puts himself in a position where a big hit can occur, so be it. That's part of the game. The fights seen after a big in today's game are, in my view, ridiculous. I think the rules need to change to address these faux-fights, and I'll look at this below.

Let's go back, though, and hear Burke's comments. I think this is a valuable look at how the state of the game has changed. It's 9:35 of Burke talking about Colton Orr and the game of hockey, but it's a good look at how the game has changed.

I'm not in 100% agreement with everything Burke said, but there's a lot of truth in what he said. Colton Orr is a very good player who simply couldn't break into the Leafs' line-up with his talent set. He'll take his game to the AHL where he can continue to play, and maybe there will be a need for another team come trade deadline day. His career, for all intents and purposes, is not yet over.

What I do agree with is how the rats are taking over the game. Matt Cooke's play before this season was clearly beyond the gray area that players occasionally wade into, and Cooke rarely fought for his indiscretions. Trevor Gillies was a repeat offender last season, and he never really answered the bell for his play. If players are going to continually play outside the lines in an effort to throw opponents off their games, when does it turn from being agitation to malice? Injuries aren't stopping, so how do teams protect their players?

I truly believe that the instigator rule needs to be lifted. Injuries aren't decreasing with the number of fights dropping, so there is little correlation between the two numbers. If anything, the instigator rule, in my view, actually contributes to the injuries because enforcers can't skate freely and police the ice.

In fact, I think the instigator penalty should automatically be assessed to any player who jumps in to defend a player who took a big hit as long as the hit is clean. There is absolutely no reason for the fight to occur other than a player trying to exact revenge for the big hit. That, in its empirical form, is the definition of instigating. Hit the player that initiated the fight with the two-minute penalty, and all is done. Let Brendan Shanahan look at the hit if there's something suspect about it, but there's no reason for a fight to occur in the vast majority of occasions.

Lastly, allow the players to police the ice once again. Injuries from elbows and knees and checks to the head were few and far between when guys like Kocur, Probert, McRae, and VandenBussche were patrolling the ice. While it's hard to determine if concussions would decrease due to the poor reporting of concussions thirty years ago, I have a hunch that players wouldn't target an opponent's head if they knew Donald Brashear or Georges Laraque were breathing down their necks.

Abolish the instigator rule that sees enforcers suspended, and I'm confident that the number of cheap shots would decrease, causing the number of serious injuries to decrease as well. And maybe players like Colton Orr can earn an NHL job once again.

The best way to control a rat outbreak? Send out a predator. If Walt Disney can do it, the NHL can do it as well.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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