NHL Rulebook Is a Mess: 3 Needed Fixes

Before the current Stanley Cup playoffs started, I predicted that Rule 69 (Goaltender Interference) was going to be a trouble spot in the postseason. It didn't take a psychic to successfully make that prediction.
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The NHL Rulebook to this very day remains a clunky, messy document that sets its officials up for the sort of "inconsistency" that everyone hoots and hollers about. Someone needs to rewrite the thing in a more proactive and coherent way.

Even without wearing a helmet during my refereeing career, I knew the NHL Rulebook pretty thoroughly. In my two decades as an active referee, I had no misapplications of the rules. Well, let me clarify that.

There were times when I misinterpreted poorly written rules, which made them edit the wording. I used to aggravate my NHL bosses by challenging the rule writer with a literal interpretation of how he'd written the rule. The guy thought he was Thomas Jefferson in the way he wrote. He was more like Elmer Fudd.

If I had the time, I could go section by section in the NHL Rulebook and point out its multitude of flaws. For now, let's stick to three rules that need to be reconsidered and rewritten. To varying extents, the permutations of these rules pop up around a large percentage of controversial plays on the ice.

1. Goaltender Interference (Rule 69)

Before the current Stanley Cup playoffs started, I predicted that Rule 69 (Goaltender Interference) was going to be a trouble spot in the postseason. It didn't take a psychic to successfully make that prediction.

It happens every year, especially in the playoffs. This year has been no exception. Various aspects of the rule have been at the center of major controversies throughout the playoffs. The latest example was the collision between New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider and Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price in which Price suffered a knee injury.

When should a goaltender interference penalty be called? What situations merit review for supplementary discipline? When should a would-be goal be disallowed? How does one define "incidental contact" between an attacking player and a goaltender?

There are literally dozens of potentially troublesome scenarios that can arise around physical contact with a goaltender. As presently written, the NHL Rulebook does a poor job at presenting guidance for the on-ice officials to make the correct judgments.

Before the start of the playoffs, I wrote up a 10-question "You Make the Call" quiz on HockeyBuzz.com describing various potential scenarios. I deliberately left some the ambiguous wording of the NHL Rulebook in the questions and answers to provide a sense of how tough some these calls are interpret correctly.

2. "Distinct kicking motion" (Rule 49.2)

Older versions of the NHL Rulebook stated that a puck that was directed into the net by any means other than a stick must be disallowed. It was OK if another player's shot attempt ricocheted in off a teammate's skate but once that teammate moved his skate in the direction of the net, it was no goal.

The NHL changed this with introduction of what is now Rule 49.2. The rule states:

Kicking the puck shall be permitted in all zones. A goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who uses a distinct kicking motion to propel the puck into the net. A goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who kicks a puck that deflects into the net off any player, goalkeeper or official.

A puck that deflects into the net off an attacking player's skate who does not use a distinct kicking motion is a legitimate goal. A puck that is directed into the net by an attacking player's skate shall be a legitimate goal as long as no distinct kicking motion is evident.

I was happy to see the old rule modified. Goals are hard enough to score in this sport without disallowing ones that ought to count. To wave off every goal that happens to go in off an attacking player's skate was akin to punishing a player for skating hard at the net and simply having an attempted pass tick off his skate and go in before he could touch the puck with his stick. For many years, officials had no other choice on plays like this one but to disallow it.

The problem with the current NHL rule is that it is vaguely worded. "Distinct kicking motion" is far from a black-and-white working definition of when to disallow a goal.

Does it simply mean the player's foot came forward and directed the puck? A "kick" could be accidental. For example, have you ever dropped an object in the vicinity of your feet while you're walking, went to pick it up and then accidentally knocked it further away with your foot?

Does "distinct kicking motion" mean there must also be some discernible intent behind the attacker playing the puck into the net with his foot? This is a judgment call for the officials. Sometimes this is pretty easy to spot, other times it's not so easy.

Quick story: Shortly after the introduction of instant replay, I was working a nationally televised game in Colorado with linesemen Wayne Bonney and Jay Sharrers. Before the game, I was asked if I was willing to wear a microphone on the ice. I said sure.

A puck went into the net off a skate. Wayne came over to me and said, "We've gotta disallow this one. It was kicked in."

I said thank you. As I skated around toward the scorer's table on the other side, Jay approached me and gave his two cents.

"Good goal, Stewy," he said. "It's gotta count."

I thanked Jay. As I arrived at the scorer's table, I looked up and said, "Now you know why they pay me the big bucks!"

In my own judgment, it was a legal goal. I had a good look at the play, and my ruling on the ice was to award the goal.

Ultimately, the goal stood as it should have. But this is an example of how there can be differing interpretations of the same play.

Something else to consider: Per Rule 49.2, players are allowed to kick the puck deliberately in all three zones of the ice. The only thing they CAN'T legally do in this regard is kick the puck into the net for a goal.

In some instances, a player could be trying to kick a somewhat errant pass from his skates to his stick, but succeed only in sending the puck into the net. Even on the most clear-cut of kicks of the puck, so long as the player manages to touch the puck with the stick (presuming it's at a legal height), it's a good goal. It doesn't matter if he only grazes the puck with the heel of his own stick and all of the energy that carried the puck over the goal line came from the initial kick.

The no-kick rule on goals was originally created for safety reasons back in the days where goaltenders did not wear masks and were not nearly as padded or otherwise as well-protected as they are nowadays. Kicking at the puck in the vicinity of the goalie or a downed defenseman around the crease was a very dangerous proposition.

As far my own opinion on the rule, I am all for allowing re-directs with the skate but NOT outright kicks into the net. This isn't soccer. Hockey is primarily meant for displaying stick skills, and the stick shouldn't become one of several optional ways of getting the puck into the net. You can't swat a puck in with your glove, either, or grab it and drop it into the net.

Another quick tangent: Back in 1993, referee Denis Morel got into a heap of trouble with the NHL for allowing an overtime goal by Winnipeg's Nelson Emerson after the puck got tossed into the net. What happened was that Chicago goalie Ed Belfour tried to clear the puck around the glass behind the Chicago net, but a forechecking Emerson intercepted it in the football-like sense of the term. In other words, Emerson caught the puck with his right glove and, with puck in hand, skated around from the behind the net toward the right goalpost, where he then dropped the puck behind the goal line.

If you recall the furor over that play, think about what might ensue if a playoff series were decided on an overtime sequence where a player soccer kicks in the winning goal. It's just not a good precedent for the game to allow that type of goal to stand.

People have asked me over the years about various permutations of the kicking rules. Unlike the somewhat ambiguous "distinct kicking motion" wording in the rulebook, the rules are quite clear in addressing how to handle various events that can happen after a puck is kicked by an attacking player.

  • If the kicked puck deflects into the net off the equipment (shin pads, hockey pants, etc.) of a player on either team -- attacking or defending, including the goalie -- it is no goal.
  • If a kicked puck deflects into the net off the stick of any defending position player EXCEPT the goalie, it's a good goal.
  • If a kicked puck deflects into the net off the goalie's stick, it's no goal.
  • As stated earlier, if a kicked puck goes in after it grazes the stick of the player who kicked it, it's a good goal. Same thing if it goes off a teammate's stick. The teammate would be the one officially awarded with the goal.
  • If the player who kicked the puck dropped his stick on the ice on the play and the kicked puck subsequently hits the stick and goes in the net, it's no goal.

3. The Instigator Rule (Rule 46.11)

A lot of fans and some media types who don't do their homework mistakenly say that it was commissioner Gary Bettman who brought the instigator rule to the NHL. That is incorrect.

A form of the instigator rule actually goes all the way back to the 1937-38 season. Want to know what the rulebook said back then? In its entirety, the rule said, "a Major penalty shall be imposed on any player who starts fisticuffs."

There's a hilarious routine by the late, great comedian George Carlin about the obfuscation of the English language. Over time, words get added and the meaning gets increasingly muddied.

In his routine, Carlin described how, In World War I, some soldiers suffered from a disorder commonly known as "shell shock". Two syllables, two words; very direct and suggestive of the hell of war. In World War II, the same condition was described as "battle fatigue"; still understandable but now up to four syllables and sounding less harsh. By Korea and Vietnam, it became "operational exhaust." Now it was seven syllables and sounding more like something that happened to a car than a human being. In the post-Vietnam era, it became "post-traumatic stress disorder," and so encased in jargon that any humanity got drained from it.

Well, the same thing has happened in the NHL and other leagues with the evolution of the rulebook. Do you want to know what the NHL's instigation-related rules (Rule 46.11 and 46.12) look like today? OK, well, here they are.

The current instigator rule did not just spring up overnight. There were many previous attempts by the League to implement a similar rule. It was before the start of the 1992-93 season, prior to Bettman becoming commissioner, that the current rule was implemented: two minute minor/10-minute misconduct, game misconducts for late-game instigation, automatic NHL suspension upon a third instigator penalty in a season with increasing suspensions for additional instigation penalties.

Let me spin you a little yarn here.

I was a young referee in my first training camp in September 1983. I was sitting in a room, leaning back on my chair -- perhaps daydreaming a bit -- during a rule enforcement meeting. Scotty Morrison, John McCauley and Jim Gregory were standing at the front of the room.

Most of it was stuff we already knew. However, when they got to part about John Ziegler (then the NHL's president) and the Board of Governors demanding officials to penalize fight instigators regardless of the circumstance, I literally fell out of my chair.

The NHL wanted to put an end to the Broad Street Bullies' strategy of using fighting as a calculated game tactic. In 1983, they revived and expanded upon a version of the instigator rule. The wording continued to expand over the next decade.

For the record, I dislike the instigator rule. As a player of the 1970s to early 1980s and a ref of the 1980s to 2000s, I found instigator penalties to be a non-deterrent to players and, at least in my opinion, more of a headache than a help to officials.

If I were a player on the ice and I saw my teammate get victimized by a dirty hit or careless swing of the stick, I was going to make the other side answer for it, instigator penalty or not. Usually, I tried to take care of business instinctively and immediately. But maybe the opportunity wouldn't arise right away for me or one of my teammates. Maybe I would be scratched in that particular game or maybe I wouldn't get another shift because of the time and score of the game.

Ah, but I had a long memory. Hockey players (and refs) always do.

What if we didn't play that team again in a season? Then I would make sure we settled it after the game in the parking lot, under the stands, or wherever else. This is not hyberbole. That is truly how the game was policed by the players when I was playing in the 1970s. You settled it on the ice if possible, off the ice if necessary, but you settled it.

Years later, when I was refereeing games, I would often say "go ahead" when two guys were acting like they wanted to square off. That was the quickest and most effective way to find out who was serious and who wasn't.

Part of the psychology of controlling a game is knowing when the LACK of a fight is becoming a distraction. It has the potential to escalate tensions to the point where it becomes more difficult for the officials to keep control of the game.


Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.

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