It is a rare year that the NHL does not tinker with at least one or two of its rules, but for the 2009-2010 season there is nothing new for referees to call.
Terry Gregson, an official since 1978, calls it unique, and says it will eliminate distractions for the referees.
Gregson, who has replaced Stephen Walkom as the NHL director of officiating, says the priorities this season will be calling the instigator penalty on fights more often and standardizing the way officials drop the puck for faceoffs.
Officials were told that the instigator has been overlooked too often.
“It’s not new,” Gregson said in a recent interview. “We’re not changing the wording and we’re not trying to make every fight an instigator call.
“But if a player travels (to start a fight), you have to ask ‘did someone clearly instigate?’ And if so, apply the rule.”
The extra two minutes for instigating was designed to discourage fighting, which dipped after the 2004-05 lockout season but has come back in force in recent campaigns.
The pre-season has seen an unusually large number of fights, often between tough guys looking for enforcers’ jobs, but few instigator penalties were called, although most are of the so-called staged variety where the gloves come off immediately after a faceoff under mutual agreement between the combatants.
But Gregson said it should be called more, particularly in cases where a player is clearly retaliating for a hit on himself or a teammate by calling an opponent out for a fight.
“Now, even when there are clean hits, there seems to be retaliation going on,” he said.
Sweeping new anti-fighting rules were expected in the furor following the death last season of senior player Don Sanderson of the Whitby Dunlops. NHL general managers proposed banning staged fights and to enforce the instigator rule, but their recommendations were rejected by the NHL Players’ Association and, other than the crackdown on instigating, the league quietly dropped it.
However, NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell was busy during the pre-season, suspending three players.
Pascal Morency of the New York Islanders, who left the bench to get at Dion Phaneuf after a dubious open-ice hit on Kyle Okposo, was suspended five regular season games.
Francis Lessard of the Phoenix Coyotes got three regular season games for boarding Anaheim’s Ryan Donally and Sean O’Donnell of the Los Angeles Kings got two games for a cross-check on the Islanders’ Matt Martin.
All three were also suspended for the rest of the pre-season.
Suspensions are in the hands of the league disciplinarians and are not the referees’ responsibility. Gregson said vicious hits are sometimes quick, judgment calls. Sometimes it is the player who gets hit who left himself in a vulnerable position.
Refs are told to call what they see and let the league take care of the rest.
The league opted to standardize faceoff procedures to avoid false starts or having players move before the puck is dropped.
He said some officials had developed their own styles – holding the puck at their chest or tucking it in their stomach – and players complained of inconsistent delivery.
Now all pucks will be dropped with the arm extended over the faceoff dot, Gregson said.
If that’s all refs have to assimilate this season, it is a relief for officials.
After the lockout, sweeping rule changes were made, from a crackdown on obstruction, to the area behind the net where goaltenders can’t play the puck, to a delay-of-game call for players who shot the puck over the boards in their own end, which was intended to force defencemen to play the puck more.
Rules were tinkered with in each succeeding season, but this year, the refs will get to work with familiar rules.
“When you have the same rules it builds your confidence,” Gregson said. “I think that gives us a better feeling going into a game.”
Gregson, who worked for the league after retiring as a referee, took over as director when Walkom decided after four years on the job he wanted to return to the ice. He and Francois St. Laurent, who was promoted from the AHL, will replace retired refs Rob Shick and Don Koharsky this season.