In the opinion of many people who know hockey, there isn’t a shadow of a doubt: Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL. Yet as long as there’s an instigator rule, you might as well put a bullseye on Sidney’s back rather than the number eighty-seven. Without anyone on the ice to physically protect Crosby, players are going to continue running at him like he’s public enemy number one. They’re going to beat on Sidney like he owes them money and many of us know what’s going to happen next. That next cheap shot that rings Crosby’s bell could very well be the next big concussion that prematurely ends his career. No one wants that, but unless the NHL does something drastic, it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I certainly don’t want to see that happen. I would prefer to see Sidney’s career last as many years as Wayne Gretzky’s, but unless the NHL does more to protect its stars, Crosby’s career is likely going to come to a premature close like that of Pat Lafontaine or Brett Lindros. For a moment, a lot of us thought it did last year.

This is hardly new in the NHL. Pittsburgh fans remember watching Mario Lemieux take his share of injuries that were caused by hard slashes and cheap hits. Countless other star players also had to look out for head hunters, but today that’s even worse for Sid the Kid than it ever was for Super Mario. The reason why is very simple: in today’s NHL there is no true accountability. I mean it, there is zero accountability to the players and they know it. Star players have been targets to cheap hits in every generation but never have the hits been so hard and taken so long to recover from than they do today. We have more players getting knocked out of the game than ever before and one reason why is because the league has no teeth. They are incapable of stopping it.

This is why the NHL needs to throw away the instigator rule.

Now I can hear the cries from the people who support the instigator rule, “what about the NHL suspending players or fining them for cheap hits? The NHL will give players the deterrent needed to stop the hitting”. Unfortunately, the NHL front office has failed to protect its players. Right now I can assure you that there are some players who are seriously considering taking a run at Sidney Crosby during these NHL playoffs. So what if some nobody that was just called up gets 20 games for doing the deed? The result is the reward of watching his team move on to the next round of the playoffs instead of Pittsburgh. This is where the NHL and their rules lose their power and ability to control the game.

Back in the days before the instigator came into effect, players had far more respect for one another. I’m not saying there weren’t any cheap hits back then, quite the contrary, but they were not as frequent as they are now and back then players paid for their actions on the ice rather than in a boardroom. Everyone in the league knew exactly what the punishment would be if you dared to take a run at any member of the Detroit Red Wings: it was Joe Kocur or Bob Probert. If you had the minerals to even dream of taking a run at someone wearing the blue and white in Toronto, you dealt with Wendel Clark or John Kordic. Do you honestly think Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley were placed on the same line as Wayne Gretzky for their scoring ability? Are you seeing a pattern here?

We didn’t see anywhere near the same amount of serious injuries that we’re seeing today because back then the players knew that if they pulled any of that crap, then they’d immediately answer to someone and get a well deserved beating for it.  Because of the instigator rule, today’s superstars are not getting the same protection that superstars of past generations benefited from. Everyone knew that if you laid a finger on anyone who was considered a ‘star player’, you were guaranteed to have a date with an enforcer in your not so distant future, and the result was usually a face full of chicklets.

Don Cherry went on a tangent last week on Coach’s Corner and he had a very valid point. Sidney might be frustrated by all the hits he’s getting, but he can’t retaliate. His teammates have to do that for him. They have to take a stand for their star player, and right now that’s not happening in Pittsburgh. No one is standing up for their star and the main reason why is because of the instigator rule. Since that revolting rule came into the NHL, we’ve seen an enormous rise in high sticking injuries, cheap shots and career-ending concussions. People are running at each other with furious speed, which has resulted in players staying out of the game for months and almost years at a time with concussion-like symptoms. How frustrated do you think Pittsburgh would be if Crosby got smacked out of the playoffs tomorrow? How upset do you think the every fan of the NHL would be if the next hit ended his career?

This garbage has gone on long enough. It doesn’t matter how many suspensions Brendan Shanahan hands out, players would happily take the fine and the unpaid vacation if it meant their team would get one step closer to Lord Stanley. There is no real accountability in the NHL and that needs to change. Gary Bettman needs to realize the best way to protect his players is to give them the power to hand out a reasonable amount of on-ice accountability. With two refs on the ice, they’ll make sure it never goes too far. So do it for the kids, Gary. Not only for Sidney, but for the next generation of stars who don’t want to have to lose months dealing with unnecessary concussion-like symptoms.

I’m saying it right here: the NHL needs to give the instigator rule the heave ho. Give old-school power back to the players and I guarantee you’ll see far fewer cheap hits and a much more entertaining hockey game that the fans will enjoy for decades to come.