Every sport has its idiosyncracies when it comes to the Rules Of The Game. Baseball has the amazing morphing strike zone. Football has pass interference — which is to sport what obscenity is to the Supreme Court — they cannot define it, but they know it when they see it — maybe. Basketball is famed for the apparent extinction of certain rules — such as palming, three-second violations and traveling. Soccer has . . . well, never mind. You get the point.
I have watched hundreds of games thus far this season, authored and read greater numbers of articles and tweets, and listened to any number of pundits, commentators and analysts expound on the various interpretations and applications given to the NHL’s pantheon of Rules & Regulations, and in so doing made a conscious effort to reconcile what my eyes were seeing and my ears were hearing. This proved to be unexpectedly difficult, so I decided to do something that men rarely do — read the rules (or instructions . . . or directions). I expected that effort to result in clarity, purpose and direction. Alas, it proved to do none of the above. Instead, it reinforced my belief that there must be some mystical property — an ethereal, Zen-like sense of awareness and understanding — that must be bestowed upon Brendan Shanahan, the referees, linesmen and commentators, in order to create the world I see on the ice out of the language in The Book. It may also have been responsible for Kerry Fraser’s hair.
To be fair, the issues I have with the NHL rule mechanisms have less to do with the letter of the law than they do with the interpretation and application of the laws, which appears to be a fluid concept, varying from game to game, and sometimes period to period. This is combined with an evolving mythology about what the rules say — and don’t say — producing a witches’ brew of uncertainty and inconsistency and reduced enforcement that is ultimately destructive to the game itself. It is a Magical Mystery Tour worth exploring, so let’s dig in to some details.
With the NHL’s preoccupation with blows to the head and concussions, we have seen unprecedented levels of painstaking analysis of questionable hits, with the inevitable goal being to determine whether the dreaded “Supplemental Discipline” is warranted. At some point during that discussion, you will almost invariably hear one commentator or another discuss whether the offending player “left his feet.” This is a mantra repeated so frequently that many assume that the “leaving the feet” issue is effectively dispositive as to the legality of the hit. There is just one problem — there is no support for that proposition in the NHL Rules. Rule 48 makes no mention of it, nor can it be found anywhere else in the rule book. The closest reference comes in Rule 42 — Charging, which states that “A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.” However, the rule also goes on to indicate that it applies to a player who, due to distance traveled, violently checks an opponent “in any manner.” So, jumping or leaving the feet is not an element of the offense, but is certainly included. Now, I would certainly agree that leaving one’s feet to apply a hit might be relevant to intent to injure or the legitimacy of the move as a hockey play, but it is not presented as such in the public forum. Instead, “leaving the feet” is presented as the Holy Grail of the violation, which it clearly is not. Some may argue that “leaving the feet” inherently means that the conduct was not a legitimate “body check”. Argue away, but the fact remains that it is not in the rules. In fact, in Rule 48, as elsewhere, the league uses the terms “hit” and “check” almost interchangeably (and never defines either term), which is an independent source of difficulty when you come down to interpretation. Thus, mythology has overtaken the rule itself.
A similar example of mythic interpretation is found in high sticking — and specifically the distinction between a minor penalty and a double-minor. Again, commentators and analysts will quickly jump into the fray, advising the viewers or listeners that the referees are “checking for blood”, again suggesting that this is the dispositive element of the offense. However, the rule does not support this conclusion. Rule 60.3 simply says that the double minor must be assessed “when injury results.” (Indeed, the only mention of “blood” in the Rules is in Rule 8.3, which requires that a bleeding player be removed from the ice, and further requires that bleeding wounds be covered, and blood stained equipment replaced before the player returns to the ice. Another rule not always followed to the letter . . .) I am not arguing that a bleeding cut does not warrant the double minor. To the contrary, I assert that a player can be “injured” without bleeding. If you use the stick to inflict a concussion, should that not be a double minor??
These are but two instances where popular mythology does not jive with the letter of the law, and interpretation is left to broadly subjective standards. We could go on for volumes with other examples, such as the “distinct kicking motion”, permissible contact with the goaltender, the presence in the crease, etc., but that would be piling on for no apparent reason. What is worthy of note is the fact that there are significant aspects of the rule book that are simply and utterly ignored. Clearly, Rule 42 (Charging) is violated far more often than it is called — but at least it is called now and then. What about Rule 43 — Checking from Behind? When was the last time you saw that one called? Did you know that it existed? It is worthy of a closer look:
43.1 Checking from Behind — A check from behind is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit, therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and contact is made on the back part of the body. When a player intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back, no penalty shall be assessed.
43.2 Minor Penalty — There is no provision for a minor penalty for checking from behind.
43.3 Major Penalty — Any player who cross-checks, pushes or charges from behind an opponent who is unable to protect or defend himself, shall be assessed a major penalty. This penalty applies anywhere on the playing surface.
Rule 43 also requires a game misconduct for a violation. I don’t know about you, but I see this rule violated, on average, half a dozen times per game, and I am amazed that more serious injuries have not yet resulted. The framers of the rules considered this an important enough transgression that they characterize it as inherently being a major penalty – a minor is not even allowed. Yet in watching games today, you would have no idea that it was even in the rule book. You want to talk about player safety? How about enforcing this one by the book every now and then, and see what happens.
Of course, the other rule well on the way to extinction is Rule 56 — Interference. Sure, it gets called a few times per game, but seriously — how often should it be called? Ten times? Twenty? Probably more, given what the rule book says:
56.1 Interference — A strict standard on acts of interference must be adhered to in all areas of the rink. . . .
56.2 Minor Penalty — A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who interferes with or impedes the progress of an opponent who is not in possession of the puck .
There is much more to the rule, in terms of specific examples, but the simple statement of its key elements is reflected above. Words like “strict standard”, ”must” and “shall” suggest a certain mandatory nature to the rule’s enforcement, which is consistent with the overall philosophy adopted in the post-lockout era — emphasize speed and skill, enhance the entertainment value of the game, and move away from the clutching and grabbing of years gone by. After an initial adjustment period, that concept worked. However, it has steadily eroded over the ensuing years to the point where the game is rapidly approaching the static, station-to-station style that formerly prevailed. Consider the following chart, documenting the number of power plays each team had in the course of each regular season since the lockout:
NHL Regular Season Power Plays
Even allowing for an “adjustment period” under the new rules, the drop-off in power play opportunities is nothing less than stunning, and all indications point to lack of enforcement as the primary culprit. Sure, nobody wants to return to 2005-2006, when a whistle blew every 30 seconds, and shorthanded situations seemed to predominate. However, those entrusted with the system of interpreting and enforcing the rules — from Brendan Shanahan down to the referees — come from the pre-lockout era, and apply old school standards to the modern NHL. In the immediate aftermath of the lockout, the NHL paid close attention to these things, as it was acutely aware of the tarnished image the labor dispute engendered, and wanted to be sure that the “New NHL” brand remained unsullied. For whatever reason, the league’s attention has waned over the ensuing years, and the results are obvious — both statistically and from the viewer experience perspective.
The rules are an inescapable part of any sport. While often viewed as a necessary evil, they provide consistency, fairness and the ability to meaningfully compare performances over time. There will always be the “unwritten rules” that dictate Michael Jordan will never be called for travelling, Roger Clemens will always get the black part of the plate (and a rookie will not), and similar “exceptions.” However, to remain credible and viable, the sport must have a solid, predictable core of rules that will be interpreted consistently and appropriately, regardless of time on the clock, the players involved, or the playoff/regular season status of the game. Sure, the sport is entertainment, and nobody wants enforcement of the rules to stifle that entertainment, but the notion of “relative enforcement”, where the application changes according to the circumstance, is contrary to the most fundamental notions of competition.
The NHL and NHLPA will soon be embarking upon another round of CBA negotiations, and part of the discussion will undoubtedly involve rules and discipline. While the existing system of player fines is laughable and requires overhaul, I submit that much benefit can be derived from simply enforcing what is already on the books than by either continuing the status quo or looking to layer on additional rules. Turn the focus to consistency, from the time the first puck is dropped until the Stanley Cup is hoisted, and you will see a more enjoyable game, fewer injuries, and a reduced number of fines and suspensions. Players, like children, will always test their boundaries — and when the boundaries get too lax, bad things happen. Let’s rely on logic, rather than magic, to mange the Rules of the Game.