by Mike Chen on 03/18/09 at 01:16 PM ET
It’s become a running gag among hockey fans that the rules in the first half of the season don’t apply in the second half of the season. Now things have been noticeably better since the lockout but there was still a tendency to drift come February and March when it came to how strict the rules were being called, especially in the final minutes of the third period.
I’ve always been a big proponent of letting the players play—and by that, I mean calling the rules consistently so that the players with the most skill and work ethic won’t be bogged down by someone bear-hugging him to the ice. Why some people continue to assume that allowing clutching and grabbing is “letting the players play”, I’ll never understand but I’m pretty sure a guy named Mario Lemieux would like to debate that point.
In any case, this season’s officiating seems to have gone through its own little rollercoaster when it comes to quality. It was business as usual up until about January, then things started to slip. For the bulk of February, things were really bad, and—at least from my observations—things seem to have swung back towards more strict officiating over the past two weeks or so.
In my eyes, the biggest culprit continues to be interference. When I flipped through games in February, you could almost count at least one blatant missed interference call per shift. The idea, of course, is that forecheckers shouldn’t have their progress impeded if the puck isn’t nearby. Here’s the exact verbiage from the NHL Rulebook (Rule #67):
A strict standard of interference must be adhered to in all areas of the rink, with emphasis on interference in the Neutral Zone.
1. 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.
2. A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who restrains an opponent who is attempting to “forecheck”.
3. A minor penalty shall be imposed on an attacking player who deliberately checks a defensive player, including the goalkeeper, who is not in possession of the puck.
4. A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who shall cause an opponent who is not in possession of the puck to be forced off-side, causing a stoppag in play.
5. A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who deliberately knocks a stick out of an opponent’s hand, or who prevents a player who has dropped his stick or any other piece of equipment from regaining possession of it.
6. A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who knocks or shoots any abandoned or broken stick or illegal puck or other debris towards an opposing puck carrier in a manner that could cause him to be distracted. (See also Rule 88(a)—Throwing Stick)
7. A minor penalty shall be imposed on any player on the players’ bench or penalty bench who, by means of his stick or his body, interferes with the movements of the puck or any opponent on the ice during the progress of the play.
(NOTE) The appropriate penalty according to the playing rules shall be assessed when a player on the players’ or penalty bench gets involved with an opponent on the ice during a stoppage in play. The player(s) involved may be subject to additional sanctions as appropriate pursuant to Rule 33A—Supplementary Discipline.
8. If, when the goalkeeper has been removed from the ice, any member of his Team (including the goalkeeper) not legally on the ice, including the Manager, Coach or Trainer, interferes by means of his body, stick or any other object with the movements of the puck or an opposing player, the Referee shall immediately award a goal to the non-offending Team.
9. When a player in control of the puck on his opponent’s side of the center red line and having no other opponent to pass than the goalkeeper is interfered with by a stick or any part thereof or any other object thrown or shot by any member of the defending Team including the Manager, Coach or Trainer, a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending Team.
These rules are accompanied by the following notes:
(NOTE 1) Body Position:
Body position shall be determined as the player skating in front of or beside his opponent, traveling in the same direction. A player who is behind an opponent, who does not have the puck, may not use his stick, body or free hand in order to restrain his opponent, but must skate in order to gain or reestablish his proper position in order to make a check.
A player is allowed the ice he is standing on (body position) and is not required to move in order to let an opponent proceed. A player may “block” the path of an opponent provided he is in front of his opponent and moving in the same direction. Moving laterally and without establishing body position, then making contact with the non-puck carrier is not permitted and will be penalized as interference. A player is always entitled to use his body position to lengthen an opponent’s path to the puck, provided his stick is not utilized (to make himself “bigger” and therefore considerably lengthening the distance his opponent must travel to get where he is going); his free hand is not used and he does not take advantage of his body position to deliver an otherwise illegal check.
(NOTE 2) Possession of the Puck:
The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession.
(NOTE 3) Restrain:
The actions of a player who does not have body position, but instead uses illegal means (e.g. hook with stick; hold with hands, trip with the stick or in any manner) to impede an opponent who is not in possession of the puck. Illegal means are acts which allow a player to establish, maintain or restore body position, other than by skating.
(NOTE 4) Pick:
A “pick” is the action of a player who checks an opponent who is not in possession of the puck and is unaware of the impending check/hit. A player who is aware of an impending hit, not deemed to be a legal “battle for the puck”, may not be interfered with by a player delivering a “pick”. A player delivering a “pick” is one who moves into an opponent’s path without initially having body position, thereby taking him out of the play. When this is done, an interference penalty shall be assessed.
(NOTE 5) Free Hand:
When a free hand is used to hold, pull, tug, grab or physically restrain an opponent from moving freely, this must be penalized as holding. The free hand may be used by a player to “fend off” an opponent or his stick, but may not be used to hold an opponent’s stick or body.
(NOTE 6) Stick:
A player who does not have body position on his opponent, who uses his stick (either the blade or the shaft, including the butt end of the shaft) to impede or prevent his opponent from moving freely on the ice shall be assessed a hooking penalty.
And in February, that seemed more like the exception rather than the rule. On countless dump-ins, you’d see the forechecker slowed down several times as he went in to try and retrieve the puck, either by a pick or a hold or a stick. That seems to have tapered off a bit as, from what I’ve seen, the refs are calling these types of things more lately. Maybe they’ve gotten a talking-to from the league office about not letting up or maybe they just had a big collective brain fart around the All-Star Game; for whatever reason, the lax officiating I noticed during that stretch has seemed to have gone away. The problem now is consistency—while they’re starting to actually call the rules again, it seems to come in bunches. There will be lulls in games where nothing is called, then suddenly every little tick-tacky thing is a penalty.
Consistency is the key to good officiating. I know the refs are human and its a thankless job, so asking for 100% consistency is a bit unrealistic. Still, a call in the first period should be a call in the second period. Not only does this provide a level playing field for both teams, it actually creates a better pace of game as the players know what they can and can’t get away with.
Now I could be totally mistaken and just happened to catch a few shifts where things seemed to be better. If you’ve noticed the officiating has still been in the toilet lately, feel free to rant in the comments.
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