The Finer Points: Instigator in the last five minutes penalty

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Craig Adams lies on the ice after a fight with Boston’s Nathan Horton in March, 2011. (SlidingSideways/Flickr)

Pittsburgh Penguins center Craig Adams has been suspended for Game 4 and coach Dan Bylsma fined $10,000 for an instigator penalty called at 15:18 of the third period of Game 3 on Sunday.

Rule 46.11 Instigator states: An instigator of an altercation shall be 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 who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting and a ten-minute misconduct.

Rule 46.2 Instigator in Final Five Minutes of Regulation Time (or Anytime in Overtime) states: A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation in the final five (5) minutes of regulation time or at any time in overtime shall be assessed an instigator minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting, and a game misconduct penalty, subject to the conditions outlined in 46.22.

Rules 46.22 goes over any supplementary discipline that may occur which is, as dolled out to Adams and Bylsma, a one-game suspension and $10,000 fine. They are not automatic punishments, however as this is a reviewable penalty and the infraction can be recalled if “the Director of Hockey Operations (Brendan Shanahan), at his discretion, deems the incident is not related to the score, previous incidents in the game or prior games, retaliatory in nature, ‘message sending’, etc.”

The purpose of the instigator penalty, originally put in place before the 1992-93 season, is to stop the so-called policemen of the game from dropping the gloves with an unwilling opponent. The penalty is even more severe in the final five minutes of play because it was becoming a common theme before the lockout for a team facing an insurmountable deficit in the third period to send a message, usually one that involved pummeling the other team out of their own frustrations.

There are criticisms of the rule, though. From Jay Zawaski of Chicago Now:

The instigator rule neuters fighters. While this may not seem like a big deal on the surface, it is. The instigator rule has forced players into finding other outlets for revenge. That’s why you’ve seen an increase in head shots, knee to knee hits, and dangerous slashes. Players don’t want the instigator penalty that goes along with the fight, so they’ll take a cheap shot behind a refs back and hope to get away with it. Why not? It works…If the NHL is serious about concussion safety and minimizing head shots, they need to remove the instigator penalty and let the enforcers enforce.

In Adams’ case, however, he wasn’t trying to protect a teammate. He went over to Hartnell, already in a battle with Sidney Crosby, became the third man in a fight (a major infraction in it’s own right) and threw several punches at the back of Hartnell’s head. He wasn’t trying to do anything other than start a fight and there clearly wouldn’t have been one without his actions.

Of course the best way to stop those dirty plays would be reasonable suspensions, but that’s a (rather long) discussion for another day.

*Editor’s Note: Hockey is a very fast-paced game and the large number of sometimes-complicated rules can make it hard to follow for a casual/new viewer. The Finer Points is a weekly column that will explain the subtleties and complexities of hockey in an easy-to-understand manner so fans can spend more time enjoying the game and less time trying to figure out what is going on.  

Is there a facet of the game that has you scratching your head? Send an email to to get a clearer picture of what is happening on the ice.


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