Getting to Know the NHL Rulebook: Fighting 2 — Fight Instigator

The NHL implemented the instigator rule to curb fighting, and it worked.

2014-15 NHL Official Rules

Like the NHL rulebook posts on video review and the intent to blow rule, we'll be giving the fight instigator rule special treatment with its own post.

The NHL's instigator rule has a fraught history. Emphasis on "history." A form of the instigator rule goes all the way back to the 1937-38 season when it read in its entirety:

A Major penalty shall be imposed on any player who starts fisticuffs.If you remember the posts on the different types of penalties, you'll notice that a simple major penalty means a player assessed an instigator penalty in 1937 would still be in the game once his penalty was served. It wasn't until 1992 that the rule was changed to include a game misconduct, and it wasn't until 1996 that the rule was changed to the current standard: two-minute minor plus a 10-minute misconduct (which is on top of the five-minute major for fighting).

The point of these posts is generally to try to explicate the rules as they stand now. Occasionally, we delve into a rule's history and justifications, but there's just too much out there on the instigator rule to include everything. We'll move on to the actual rule as it's written today, but there are quite a few enlightening posts on the topic, including its history and the standard of enforcement. The most important thing: the increased penalties for the instigator rule pre-date Gary Bettman's tenure as NHL Commissioner.

Rule 46 — Fighting (cont'd)

46.11 Instigator: The short history of the instigator rule is that the NHL tried to curb the level of fighting in the game because there was supposedly too much of it. Even if it wasn't trying to totally eradicate fighting from the game, it worked at decreasing the number of them when they increased the penalties for instigating a fight.

The current version of the rulebook defines an instigator as "a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season."

A player gives himself away if he starts charging at someone and immediately starts throwing punches. Sometimes this is more obvious because the officials discussed with the players before the game if there were any incidents that signaled the potential for retaliation. As the linked Kerry Fraser post above notes, the instigator is generally not assessed unless it's really obvious a player "instigated" a fight.

If a player is assessed an instigator penalty, he racks up 17 minutes in penalties: the two-minute minor plus 10-minute misconduct for the instigator on top of the five minutes for fighting. It is also possible for players to rack up another game misconduct for being the Aggressor in a fight, covered in the last rulebook post on fighting.

The 17 minutes in penalties are certainly a lot of game time, but they don't automatically throw a player out of the game. If, upon his return to the game, the same player incurs a second fight instigator penalty in the same game, he'll still get two, five, and 10, except this time the 10-minute penalty is a game misconduct. I honestly don't know if anyone's ever been assessed two instigators in the same game.

Regardless of whether it's a player's first or second instigator in the game, if it's his third instigator of the season, then he'll automatically be assessed a game misconduct.

If a player's team thinks an instigator penalty wasn't warranted, they can request to have the incident reviewed by the League. It follows the same procedure for a game misconduct review outlined in Rule 23.2: file the request in writing to the League's Hockey Operations department within 48 hours from the conclusion of the game.

46.12 Instigator in Final Five Minutes of Regulation Time (or Anytime in Overtime): In the last five minutes of a game or in overtime, any instigator penalty automatically incurs a game misconduct rather than the simple 10-minute misconduct. More penalties outlined below in 46.22.

This rule basically exists to prevent "message sending," especially in blowout games. The rule has lost its efficacy because dumb fights get started much earlier these days than the last five minutes of the third period when a team is getting blown out.

46.21 Fines and Suspensions — Instigator: As previously mentioned, a player who incurs a third instigator in a season is automatically assessed a game misconduct. On top of that penalty, the player also receives an automatic two-game suspension. Get a fourth instigator in the same season, and it's a four-game suspension. The rulebook only specifies up to a fifth violation, which gets an automatic six-game suspension, but in case you haven't seen the pattern yet, each subsequent instigator tacks on another two games to the suspension.

The rulebook doesn't specify whether the instigator penalties carry over from the regular season into the playoffs. My reading of it implies that it does reset the counter, but wouldn't it be nice to have these things spelled out explicitly?

In the playoffs, however, a player receives an automatic one-game suspension for his second instigator penalty of the playoffs. Each subsequent violation tacks on another game, so a third instigator gets a two-game suspension, and so on.

While the rulebook doesn't specify if the counter resets between the regular season and playoffs, it does say that a player's previous instigators are wiped from his record in the Stanley Cup Final. They'll remain a part of his permanent record, but it won't count toward the second-instigator suspension rule. In other words, if you want to get automatically suspended for one game in the Stanley Cup Final, you need to commit two instigator infractions during the Final.

46.22 Fines and Suspensions — Instigator in Final Five Minutes of Regulation Time (or Anytime in Overtime): I'm going to address the elephant in the room by simply linking to this post and to the relevant boxscore.

Now that that's out of the way, if a player is deemed guilty of an instigator in the final five minutes or in overtime, he "shall" be suspended for one game, "pending a review of the incident." If the suspension is upheld, the head coach is fined $10,000. The fine for the head coach doubles with each subsequent incident.

If, in the rare situation that a player incurs multiple automatic suspensions — say, gets an instigator in the final five minutes, and that also happens to be his third instigator of the season — then every game of every automatic suspension is served. So in the example described above, the player would serve a three-game suspension.


If this feels a bit disjointed, it's because it is. Covering the rules out of order doesn' t happen too often, but it speaks to the need to completely overhaul the rulebook so that the sections (and the rules themselves) actually make sense. It's also difficult to use any Red Wings in any examples because, in general, the team just doesn't fight very often at all.

Back to your regularly scheduled fighting in the next rulebook post.