NHL Needs to Take a Page from IIHF on Goalie Interference

Goaltender interference is not a simple subject in the NHL. It is a highly complex rule, not because of the language used in the rule, no, but because it is applied by many separate people and each one can interpret the rule differently. That means it is not black and white, but 50 shades of gray, which leaves room on the part of the on and off-ice officials to make what may seem like confusing decisions. That leads to errors and controversy. 

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It is important to get this call correct as close to 100 percent of the time as possible. This isn’t a puck over the glass, a hook, or a trip. Goaltender interference calls and reviews have a much larger impact on the game and its outcome. With fans having legitimate trust issues with NHL officials after the Tim Peel “makeup call” incident – and the incorporation of gambling into the NHL – now more than ever, it is time for the NHL to take some of the grey out of these calls and make more objective and predictable results, especially as the league begins to brand itself with sports betting sites. 

Does Anyone Know What Goalie Interference is? 

There are so many questions surrounding this one rule. For something that has a codified written ruling, there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding it. What is it? How is it supposed to be applied? Most of all, is it time for it to change, especially when a coin flip is considered more accurate than the NHL’s Situation Room?  

When the rule was introduced, things were simple. A penalty was assessed if an attacking skater made contact with a goalie in his crease when the goalie was attempting to get in position to attempt a save. It was anything by an attacking player casing a goalie to be stopped, forced to change their path, or even slowed down in the crease that was an automatic call.

As technology improved, the rule evolved. Then layers, or nuance, were added. While the onus on the skater to avoid contact with the goalie remained, there were no mitigating circumstances added, such as the defender causing the attacking player to be unable to avoid contact. Even with the added technology and staff in Toronto able to pour over a play from dozens of angles, it has still been difficult for the league to standardize the judgments on goaltender interference especially when the decisions are made by a different person every game. The rule now has evolved into the current Rule 69, Goaltender Interference.  

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Looking at some key excerpts of the rule, specifically Rule 69.1 which states “If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed”. Then Rule 69.3 reaffirms that stating “if an attacking player establishes a significant position within the goal crease, so as to obstruct the goalkeeper’s vision and impair his ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.” That seems fairly black and white, right? Not so fast.  

The NHL Version of 50 Shades of Gray 

During the Montreal Canadiens versus Florida Panthers game on Jan. 19, 2023, after a long review, the Situation Room supported the call on the ice that the contact between Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Montembeault “had no bearing on the puck entering the net, therefore it did not constitute goaltender interference”.  

However, it is clear that Tkachuk was in the crease and he hindered the goaltender’s movement while in the blue paint, preventing even an attempt at a save. At no point does the rule state that a goal can be allowed if it is determined that it would have likely been scored anyway. “Trust me bro” subjectiveness isn’t in the rulebook. By one interpretation, however, it’s a good goal.

Yet in the following example, Conor Garland of the Vancouver Canucks is attempting to set himself in position at the top of the crease, in the white paint. Then, Sam Girard of the Colorado Avalanche pushes him into the goaltender. At that point, Garland makes every attempt to get out of the crease, does so, and deflects a point shot in the process.  

After review, this goal was deemed goaltender interference. The NHL’s reasoning? Garland had a significant presence in the crease and made contact with goaltender Pavel Francouz, which impaired his ability to play his position before the goal. The decision was made by Rule 69.1, which states in part, “goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal.” 

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So how is it that one goal where a player had obvious contact in the blue paint resulting in a goaltender’s inability to move freely in his crease is allowed, while another, where the attacking player had left the crease after the contact in the blue paint before the shot being attempted was disallowed? If contact in the blue paint isn’t allowed, shouldn’t that be universally applied, especially when the NHL uses the most up-to-date video technology with a staff of dozens to review these plays and a rule book that states a ruling in clear language? 

The IIHF Leads the Way 

While controversy will always surround goalie interference calls due to the nature that they will impact a goal being scored or not, there are examples available of a standard that is very clear in its application. It is time for the NHL to take a page out of the IIHF rulebook and take out the massive loopholes allowing for subjective calls to remain the norm.

The IIHF goaltender interference rule essentially boils down to “touching the goalie in the crease is goalie interference”. That standard seems very similar to the NHL’s; however, there are some distinct differences. Such as the subjectiveness in the call by the international officials is minimized. The IIHF rulebook goes far beyond the NHL’s by providing a table (Appendix 4, Table 16, Rule 69) in the annexes that describe every situation, and if the goal is allowed, disallowed, penalized, non-penalized, where the faceoff is placed, and more. This means that any review made will follow that standard, and there are far fewer deviations from the written rule. While that does take some hard-fought goals away from teams, it minimizes the chaos and confusion surrounding the decisions made. 

It’s nice that both the NHL and IIHF rulebooks make goaltender interference the same number, Rule 69. It makes it easier to find and compare. Using the recent 2023 World Junior Championship that saw Team Canada eliminate Team USA by a score of 6-2 in the semi-finals that had not one, but two American goals disallowed as an example, the rules that were applied by the officials to the two disallowed goals fall under Rule 69.3, “Contact Inside the Goal Crease”, in the IIHF rulebook. 

Team Canada head coach Dennis Williams challenged both plays that were reversed. The second goal that was called back is an excellent example of the IIHF Rule 69 in practice. In the NHL that likely would have been ruled a goal, but it is clear that Rutger McGroarty pushed Thomas Milic’s pads, causing the puck to become free.   

This goes against IIHF Rule 69.7 that states “In the event, a Goalkeeper has been pushed into the net together with the puck by an attacking Player after making a stop, the goal will be disallowed. If applicable, appropriate penalties will be assessed”. In the NHL that goal would have likely counted, or not, depending on the feelings of the NHL Situation Room, or a coin flip. But in the IIHF, there is no room for subjectiveness on the call, the puck was under the pad and Milic was pushed into the net, therefore, it’s not a goal. Both disallowed Team USA goals in that semi-final matchup with Canada were the right calls based on the very clearly defined IIHF standards. International hockey is played by different standards than the standard North American game.

While the NHL’s rules can be more appealing most of the time, the overreliance on subjective standards by on and off-ice officials make it impossible to rely on that very standard. Fans get frustrated as they see identical plays called in opposite ways. The NHL’s new partners in the world of sports betting become very upset at that same lack of predictable, objective standards, especially if a goal affects the outcome of a game’s betting line. If the NHL wants to grow its bottom line by adding billions of dollars in gambling revenue, then the less subjective they make the goaltending interference call, the better it will be for their wallets. But more so for the fans and even the players, who simply want to understand what plays will be called goaltender interference.

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