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Rule changes soften NHL tone

In the NHL, a premeditated fight at the opening whistle, such as the one that received national attention at a recent Phantoms game, has become a rarity.

In the NHL, a premeditated fight at the opening whistle, such as the one that received national attention at a recent Phantoms game, has become a rarity.

It didn't used to be that way. There were times in the 1970s when Flyers coach Fred Shero would send a message to his opponent by opening the game with a line that included enforcers Dave Schultz and Bob Kelly.

"There were games when Freddy would start Schultzie, me and Clarkie," Kelly said the other day, referring to Bobby Clarke. "Basically, you were calling out the other team."

Kelly remembers a game early in his career when he went after Vancouver's Rosaire Paiement because he had broken the Flyers winger's nose with an elbow in their previous meeting.

"As soon as they dropped the puck, I went after him," Kelly said. "It was time to repay a debt."

But first-shift bouts are almost extinct in the new, speed-first NHL. The instigator rule, which adds two minutes and a 10-minute misconduct if the referee declares an aggressor in a fight, is the main reason, said former NHL bad boy Craig "Chief" Berube.

"The instigator rule has put in the player's mind that he doesn't want to take a penalty and sit in the box," said Berube, who is in his first full season as a Flyers assistant coach. "It puts him on his heels."

On Jan. 23, in an AHL game, the Phantoms' enforcer, 6-foot-5, 235-pound Garrett Klotz, was used as a starter in response to Manchester's starting 6-5, 247-pound Kevin Westgarth. Klotz's mission was to pay back Westgarth for pounding Phantoms forward Jeff Szwez in the team's previous meeting, on Nov. 7.

So Klotz and Westgarth took off their helmets and gloves and began fighting two seconds after the opening face-off. Klotz was knocked out and suffered convulsions on the ice. He appears to have made a full recovery.

Berube's playing days started in the 1986-87 season. He remembers being on the opening line in almost all the Flyers' 19 games in the 1989 playoffs.

That was before the NHL adopted the instigator rule in 1992-93.

Berube's line would start games "just to get the physical game going and get the intensity level up," he said. "It's not always that you start a tough guy just to fight; you're starting him to send a message and get the physical game going."

"That doesn't happen that much now," he said, adding that "the referees are looking right away to make calls."

"There are so many penalties nowadays, and you don't want to be shorthanded on the first shift," Berube said. "A tough guy goes out and runs somebody over, and lots of times you get a penalty for it."

The game, at all levels, is much more civilized today, said Flyers broadcaster Steve Coates, who played professionally from 1973 to '80. He spent most of his years in the minors, along with a stint with the Detroit Red Wings in 1976-77.

Coates remembers when he and his Richmond teammates sent a telegram to teammate Ray Schultz (Dave's brother) and wrote unpleasant things to rile him up. They signed the name of the enforcer from Rochester, Richmond's next opponent.

Back then, Coates said, players had to be ready for a fight in the warm-ups. "The fear factor was humongous," he said.

Veteran winger Arron Asham, who is in his first season with the Flyers, said there had been times in his 10-year career that he had attempted to mix it up on the game's first shift.

"You try to go out there and set the tone," he said. "The coach never tells you," but when the opponent starts its tough line, "usually it's kind of a sign to try to get the troops going."

Asham has started a handful of games this season but has not started a fight just after the opening face-off. Neither has his linemate and fellow enforcer, Riley Cote.

"Johnny's not that type of coach, to send guys out to fight," Asham said, referring to John Stevens. "Me and Riles and Gratts [Josh Gratton] and whoever fights know when to do it."

In previous seasons, Asham said, he had tried to start a game-opening fight, "but it never happened. Either the guy I was trying to fight had a bad hand or didn't want to fight."

According to NHL statistics, there are about 1.3 fighting majors a game this season. That's the highest rate since 2003-04, but not close to the record of 2.1 a game in 1986-87.

When the Broad Street Bullies were creating havoc in the 1970s, bench-clearing brawls were part of the team's identity.

"In the old days, intimidation was a big part of the game," said Kelly, who works for the Flyers' community-relations department. "In those days, we'd have games that lasted four, four-and-a-half hours, and fights were more spontaneous, where you'd get a body check and go at it. With the instigator rule, you both have to be willing" to answer the bell.

Coates remembered players' taping their knuckles with pieces of aluminum foil and bending them so they would be pointy - and would cut an opponent in a fight.

"It truly was Slap Shot," he said. "They could make another movie with stuff I could tell you."