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Is Sheldon Keefe going to be fined?

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Understanding the Abuse of Officials rule.

NHL: MAR 11 Jets at Maple Leafs
Keep your mask on, it’s safer in more ways than one.
Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In Saturday night’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Toronto Maple Leafs were issued a bench minor in the third period. The score was 4-2 at the time, and Nikolaj Ehlers had just scored on the power play for Winnipeg after Morgan Rielly had been called for interference.

Off the faceoff, Zach Hyman moved in to prevent the Jets from getting to the puck and knocked a few of them over. There’s no question that’s interference. The only question is how consistently is it called. Every person has their own answer to that.

Backing up, Morgan Rielly, who is not a complainer about penalties all that often, was upset by the call against him:

Now, onto the Hyman penalty:

The quote Omar and the rest of us can lipread there is obvious. So is the bit later where Sheldon Keefe says something like, “Fuck you, ref,” or “Fucking crap,” it’s hard to tell. That’s the part where he got the bench minor.

Here’s the rule:

Rule 39 – Abuse of Officials

39.1 General Description – A player, goalkeeper, Coach or non-playing person shall not challenge or dispute the rulings of an official before, during or after a game. A player, goalkeeper, Coach or non-playing person shall not display unsportsmanlike conduct including, but not limited to, obscene, profane or abusive language or gestures, comments of a personal nature intended to degrade an official, or persist in disputing a ruling after being told to stop or after being penalized for such behavior.

and...

39.3 Bench Minor Penalty - A bench minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct shall be assessed under this rule for the following infractions:

(i) Any Coach or non-playing person who bangs the boards with a stick or other object at any time, showing disrespect for an official’s decision. If this is done in order to get the attention of the on-ice officials for a legitimate reason (i.e. serious injury, illness, etc.), then discretion must be exercised by the Referees.

(ii) Any unidentifiable player or any Coach or non-playing person who uses obscene, profane or abusive language or gesture directed at an on or off-ice official or uses the name of any official coupled with any vociferous remarks. (see also 39.5 (ii))

(iii) Any player, Coach, or non-playing person interferes in any manner with any game official including the Referees, Linesmen, Game or Penalty Timekeepers or Goal Judges in the performance of their duties.

It’s clear that 39.3 (ii) is being applied in the game. What isn’t clear is if Keefe ever used the name of the referee.

The game misconduct rule in section 39.5, which for a coach means ejection, would only come into play if Keefe had kept going after the ref assessed the penalty.

The last section of the rule is this one:

39.6 Reports - It is the responsibility of all game officials and all club officials to send a confidential report to the Commissioner setting out the full details concerning the use of obscene gestures or language by any player, Coach or non-playing Club personnel. The Commissioner shall take such further disciplinary action as he shall deem appropriate.

Like a lot of rules in the NHL, this one gives the Commissioner broad discretion to apply fines or other sanctions.

Many people may recall that there is automatic supplementary discipline written into the rules, but that is under Rule 40 for Physical Abuse of Officials. There is no requirement for a fine to be levied in this case. But there can be one.

Some things to consider:

The term abuse can be defined to mean whatever you like, and expectations can be made about what referees should be subject to in the workplace, a very emo workplace to be sure. But your inference doesn’t matter. All that matters is the rules. And it’s very clear, particularly in this season where a lot of on-ice conversation is suddenly audible, that the referees don’t impose this rule with any more strictness than they do interference or there’d be no five-on-five play in a game.

The rule contains language about not using the name of the referee because the referee is not meant to be held personally to account. Players and coaches are supposed to interact with them in their role as referee, as an official, not Joe or Bob or Graham. They are performing a function, and it’s up to their departmental head to assess their performance personally.

The concepts of profane, obscene and abusive are never defined, and the NHL is an international league with players from all over the world in it, and there is no consensus on what any of those things mean or which words are bad across borders. There is, in my experience, a very stark divide between Canada and the USA in terms of how public reaction to profanity plays out.

Needless to say, if you want a bench minor, Keefe certainly showed the way. Any referee is likely to assess that situation the same way, particularly after Rielly’s disputing of his penalty. If only the NHL had made removing the mask a bench minor this season, none of this conversation would even be happening.

As for knowing when interference will be called... I got nothing. But I don’t think Keefe will get a fine for this one.