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The NHL rules are broken and it’s ruining hockey

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It isn’t the refs fault for the NHL’s series of incompetent screw ups

2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

These playoffs have been absolutely abysmal in terms of how the refs have been calling them.

Let’s take a quick recount of some examples:

I’m sure there are others that I missed, both because the start of the playoffs are crazy busy and because there’s that much that happened.

But here’s the thing, I don’t blame the refs at all. They call the games the way they have been told to call them. If they’re making mistakes, I firmly believe that most of the mistakes come from an extreme lack of consistency between the official rule book and how the rules are written and how the league wants the rules to be enforced (if at all).

I think there is obvious proof of this, and you need look no further than how the NHL chooses to make calls when they take the decision out of the refs’ hands during a review and make the call themselves. Just think of goalie interference reviews, and how no one has any idea how those will be decided game to game. It goes from extremely strict standards to extremely lax standards all the time, to the point that players, coaches, media people and lifetime fans will all watch a review coming up and say the same thing: “I have no idea how they’ll call this.”

The Rule Book Is Out of Date

Here’s my biggest problem. The NHL rule book right now is basically pointless. If you read the rules and watch the game, you’ll assume the rules are from a completely different league or sport. What’s in the rule book is not what’s called on the ice, for any number of bullshit reasons.

Recently, Down Goes Brown looked at some of the examples of why the league CAN’T call games by the rule book. If you have a subscription to The Athletic take a read because some of them are hilariously out of date. Example:

Rule 75.2(i): Swearing

How it’s typically called: Players swear. Kind of a lot. As long as they don’t obviously direct it at the referee or use any slurs, it’s just part of the game. Don’t read lips, kids.

But the rulebook actually says: A minor penalty shall be assessed to “any identifiable player who uses obscene, profane or abusive language or gestures directed at any person.”

So here’s what it seems like the NHL has done. They’ve basically hoarded old rules and never bothered to remove or adjust them in their official rule book. Whether it’s to get rid of rules that no longer apply or make any sense (swearing), or adjusting what exactly a specific infraction is, or what the prescribed penalty should be on the ice, they’ve just let the rule book be in a lot of cases.

Instead what they’ve done is have a series of “unwritten rules” about how the game should ACTUALLY be called during a game. This is more like a general philosophy than hard and fast rules, but they dramatically change how the rules are enforced compared to how the rule book says they should be enforced.

Example: how often when we see what looks like an obvious penalty not get called one moment, then a minute later basically the exact same thing happens and it DOES get called? It can be maddening! And we’ll hear the commentary cycle through a few “explanations”:

  1. The non-call was because the penalty did not affect possession of the puck.
  2. The penalty that WAS called came because the ref warned the offending player once or twice but then he called the third time he did it.
  3. That’s an even-up call (or non-call) to make up for something that was (or wasn’t) called earlier in the game.
  4. Tim Peel.
  5. Well it’s the playoffs so just throw everything out of the window because who the fuck knows.

I could be wrong, but I don’t remember seeing that sort of thing mentioned in the rule book. My major problem with this is how it leads to my next big problem...

There Is No Such Thing as Consistency

The NHL is this bizarre mix of different types of rules and standards for calling the game. On the one hand, you have rules that are written and called 100% black and white and all the time: icings, pucks over the glass, high sticking, and now offsides thanks to that new review rule.

In all those examples, the refs (or the league when reviewing it) might make the odd mistake but not very often. In the spirit of the rule, they are black and white: it is icing or it isn’t, the puck went clean over the glass or it didn’t, and so on. And if you break those rules, the play is blown dead and the “penalty” — either in the form of a powerplay or a faceoff — is enforced.

Now compare that to things like goalie interference, or various hooking/tripping/interference types of penalties. There the refs are asked to make a judgment call that involves a whole whack of different standards.

  • Did it affect possession?
  • Did the goalie have a chance at stopping the puck anyways?
  • Was it the third time it happened after being warned?
  • Is it a playoff game?
  • What’s the balance of penalties that have already been called and will this “even up” the powerplay chances or make it more uneven?

The problem with judgment calls, and all of these sorts of factors, is that it invites inconsistency. What’s called within a game can change based on keeping the number of power plays more or less even. It can change between games depending on the refs calling it. It can change within a season if there was a big controversy and the league changed its mind about how things should be called (the standard for goalie interference reviews is the worst example of this). It absolutely changes between the regular season and the playoffs.

To me, the problem is that the NHL is extremely reactionary in how they approach enforcing their rules. Instead of changing their rule book, they seem to have just settled on changing their unwritten rules and standards that only they know what it says. It leaves players and fans bewildered and frustrated because we have no idea what is going on. We don’t know if there has been any changes, and we don’t know what exactly the changes were.

Expanding Reviews Hasn’t and Won’t Work

Things like the Panarin goal that hit the netting, or the Sharks’ hand pass goal in overtime, have all started a new narrative about how the NHL needs to expand its system of reviewing bad goals. There’s been talk about including more rules that can be reviewed, to giving teams a blanket review request, to adding a “fifth” ref that’s above the ice and can signal to the others or the penalty box that something should be reviewed.

Here’s the thing... none of that is going to work, in the sense that it’s not going to make anyone any happier. How could it? They introduced reviews for goalie interference and offside, and is anyone any happier about it? No we aren’t! And it’s because the NHL is completely fucked in how they write and enforce their rules. They react, they change, and they don’t tell us. So colour me skeptical that any changes they make to reviews will improve anything.

The other problem is that it won’t do anything to fix penalties and how they’re called, which I would say is a much bigger problem than things like the odd time the refs miss a hand pass, puck in the netting, or offside that leads to a goal.

Or are we going to start having reviews for penalties too? Lol didn’t think so.

Start Over From Scratch

Odds are nothing I mentioned above will surprise anyone. Most people will agree that the system is broken and will agree with all of the various ways I think it is broken. Now let’s get to what I think the league needs to do, but probably won’t.

The NHL needs to hold a summit with refs, players, coaches, owners, and other influential people involved in hockey and figure out how they want NHL hockey games to be called.

They can use the current/old rule book as a reference, they can even borrow or copy some parts. But everything should be written out from scratch, build up the rules from the foundation upward. Most importantly, they need to look at every part of the game that requires a rule and ask how SHOULD the game be called.

  • What is fair for everyone? — the players and teams, and the refs who have to call it.
  • What helps promote player safety? — if a play is dangerous how should it be discouraged through the rules and rules enforcement? Make a tier of things that present the most danger: hits to the head, boarding, high sticking, and so on. Prescribe penalties to each tier that will appropriate discourage players from committing those infractions with the severity that they can all agree is fair.
  • What helps promote a game that is exciting to watch? — if something is far and safe, but bogs the game down, makes it boring, or makes people not like watching, then find a way to make a rule that can discourage it.
  • How can we write and enforce a rule that we are willing to call that is CONSISTENT in any scenario?

You can add whatever other criteria you think should be included as far as overarching principles for how the game’s rules should be written and enforced.

I’m not even going to make any suggestions for how I think they should write specific rules, or even the rules in general. I’m at the point where I don’t even care how they do it, I just want them to give me something that makes sense, that is consistent, and that I can reference when watching a game so I know what the fuck is going on.

Well, actually, I do have one suggestion in mind...

Re-Think How “Penalties” Work

There is a common objection you will hear to the idea that the refs should “call the game” according to the rule book:

This goes to what I said earlier: if you have a rule written down in the official rule book, including what the proper call on the ice should be, then what the hell is the point in having the rule in the first place? The NHL needs to be making rules that they will actually call.

I think a lot of the problems that have all come home to roost now has to do with the rules being pulled in multiple directions by different people or ideas. They want to crack down on some things, but never want to call too many penalties. So they either focus on ONLY calling one kind of penalty (remember when they cracked down on slashes for a while?) while not calling anything else, or they just sort of sometimes call things... maybe.

Now, I for one mostly agree with the idea that if you actually call penalties every time, you will find that players will change their behaviour accordingly — look at the crack down against obstruction after the lockout. The trap and obstruction era of hockey looks a lot different than today, which has seen some obstruction slowly let back in.

So, here is my idea: it’s time to re-think how to “penalize” hockey plays that should be against the rules. It seems like people have a philosophical problem with giving a team a power play for some plays. because they’re not “serious enough” or something. There are other ways to penalize a team without assessing them a penalty.

Here’s an example: icing.

Way back when, the league realized they didn’t want a team to be able to just fire the puck down the ice to give themselves a break. So they created the icing rule, where the play would be blown dead and the faceoff would come back in the offending team’s zone. This is called every single time, and though the rules around icing have been adjusted over the years, the core principle is the same. And wouldn’t you know it, most of the time players will intentionally try to avoid icing the puck. They might do it by accident, they might do it out of desperation, but they mostly stop trying to do it.

As a side note, the recent change to the rule that doesn’t allow a team to change players is brilliant as an additional “penalty”.

There is a perfect example of how to discourage a minor action without going overboard. My proposal is to use this same “penalty” a lot more often for all these plays you want to discourage without giving a team a 2 minute power play. Here are some ideas of when to use it:

  • Puck over the glass — no more minor penalty, faceoff back in the offending team’s end with no changing players allowed.
  • Minor delays — intentional offsides, calling for a review but getting it wrong (for ALL reviews, instead of a minor penalty), anything that slows the game down but isn’t worth giving a minor penalty to.
  • Obstruction — for all those little hooks, trips, holds, and other penalties that refs/the league/the media doesn’t want to give out a minor penalty to, use the icing faceoff rule instead.
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct — I call this the “we’re sick of Brad Marchand’s bullshit” rule. Step on a player’s stick? Faceoff in the your end, no changes allowed. Lick a guy? Faceoff in their end, no changes. Post-whistle scrum bullshit? Faceoff in their end. Every. Single. Time. And if you commit this when the faceoff is already in your end and you’re doing it to hold up play to get more of a rest? Delay of game, minor penalty.

Hell, you can even get creative with it if you want. Let the other team what players or line they want to come out for the faceoff. Don’t even have a faceoff, the other team just gets clear possession of the puck in your zone. The defending team isn’t allowed to have sticks, they have to get to the bench to get them. Whatever! Let’s get crazy!

What Will The NHL Actually Do?

These playoffs might be making me more cynical than usual, but I predict they will do fuck all that will substantially change anything for the better. They’ll announce some new review system that makes some people happy until the next season starts and we all realize how much it sucks as much as their other changes in recent past. Maybe they’ll announce that they’re going to crack down on [new hot button penalty like slashing the hands they blitzed earlier this year]. And that’s probably it.

Then come playoff time we’ll go through this same song and dance, but the specific controversies will be about different rules than offsides or hand passes. It’ll be about... I dunno, high sticking or goalies playing the puck or some shit. We’ll all say that it’s fine until our team gets burned and then we’ll be frothing mad and demand more change. And then in the off-season the league will announce some new review system that makes some people happy until the next season starts and we all realize how much it sucks as much as their other changes in recent past. Maybe they’ll announce that they’re going to crack down on [new hot button penalty like slashing the hands they blitzed earlier this year]. And that’s probably it.

And so on and so forth until we are all dust.