Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A guide to some things you might expect to find in an NHL rulebook (but won’t)

I’ve always been a bit of a rulebook nerd. My readers know that, and we’ve had some fun with it over the years. Last season, we went through seven rules that don’t work the way you think, or that you might not have known were in the book at all. Did you know that it’s an automatic penalty to swear, or challenge a referee’s judgment, or (sometimes) even freeze the puck after a save? The NHL rulebook is weird.

But while there are lots of rules that you might not have known were in there, the flip side is also true. There’s stuff that hockey fans tend to assume is explained in detail in the rulebook, but isn’t. Sometimes it’s missing completely. In other cases, it’s a lot more vague than you might have been led to believe. Sometimes, that might even be a good thing.

Today, let’s dig into that side of the story, with five things you might assume you could find in an NHL rulebook that aren’t actually there.

Pretty much any definition of charging

What you know: Charging is a penalty that isn’t called often, but it comes up from time to time, and plenty of fans seem to believe that it should be called a lot more than it is. Leaving your feet to make a hit is definitely charging. So is skating halfway across the ice to drill a guy. You’ll sometimes hear that it’s based on how many strides a player takes before initiating contact.

It’s a bit of a gray area, sure, but you know it when you see it. (Specifically, you know it’s charging when you see a player from your favorite team get sent flying.)

What you might expect to find in the rulebook: Some sort of definition of what charging actually is.

What you get instead: An almost comically ambiguous description of charging that could be applied to half the hits in a typical game, or none of them at all.

Seriously, go check out Rule 42. It’s one of the shortest rules in the rulebook, just over 300 words; half of those are the standard-issue breakdown of minor versus major versus match, and half of what’s left is just a reminder that goalies aren’t fair game for hits. The actual description of charging is just two sentences long, and neither is very helpful.

The first tells us that a charging penalty “shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.” The first problem here is that we’re using the word “charges” to help define what “charging” is, a turn of phrase that sounds like it should be read by Smokin’ Joe Frazier. But more importantly: any manner? That seems a little vague, no? It can be read as saying that skating into an opponent is always against the rules. Is every hit a potential charge?

Well, yeah, as it turns out, it kind of is. The next line clarifies, but only a little: “Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner.” Now we know that we’re looking for violent checks, and that distance traveled is an important factor. But that’s as far as we go. Despite what you may have heard, there’s nothing in the rulebook about how many strides a player can take. And while there is that reference to jumping into an opponent, it doesn’t explicitly say that leaving your feet is an automatic charge, at least any more than skating into someone should be.

How it gets called: This is one of those rules that’s evolved as the game has changed. It’s a bit of a relic from the sport’s early days when players taking two-minute shifts would glide around the ice and only accelerate to full gear when needed. Back then, somebody going full speed into a body check would stand out – that was charging. But as Ken Dryden once told me, these days the entire game is played at charging speed. Based on how the sport works today and how the rule is written, it’s not an exaggeration to say that yes, literally every hit could be called charging.

Nobody wants that. Instead, today’s officials have pretty much settled on looking for a player who takes multiple strides into a stationary opponent and/or leaves his feet when delivering a hit. That’s reasonable. It’s just not what the rulebook says.

(Now can we also talk about how the phrase “leaves his feet” doesn’t make any sense?)

A clear-cut definition of possessing or controlling the puck

What you know: Certain scenarios covered in the rules will hinge on who has possession and/or control of the puck. Delayed penalty calls, legal line changes, penalty shots and offside calls can all depend on whether or not a player (or team) had the puck, and when.

What you might expect to find in the rulebook: A detailed definition of what it means to possess or control the puck.

What you get instead: Not much. Or, depending on how you look at it, maybe too much. References to possession show up all over the rulebook. Often, they’re accompanied by a reference to control, which is a similar concept but not the same thing. (As the rulebook charmingly puts it at one point, “A player can have possession of the puck without control, but he cannot have control of the puck without possession.” That’s almost deep enough to go on a motivational poster.)

Some of those references tip-toe up to defining the term, if very loosely. For example, Rule 56 on interference says that possession is simply “The last player to touch the puck.” But the closest we get to something firm is tucked away in the glossary, which says that control is “The act of propelling the puck with the stick, hand or feet.” That’s a start. But there’s nothing about, for example, the puck staying within a certain distance of the player, or how much contact he needs to make to maintain possession, or whether the propelling needs to be intentional, or any of the other nit-picky things you might wonder about.

You know how the NFL seems to have roughly six dozen rules and sub-rules about whether or not a receiver possessed the ball at a given moment? The NHL doesn’t have that. This might not be a bad thing.

How it gets called: This is another one that often falls into the “we know it when we see it” category. And honestly, that usually works out fine. Except when it doesn’t.

This came up recently in a game between the Bruins and Canadiens, where Charlie Coyle was ruled offside after video review on a play where he seemed to control the puck with his skates. The rulebook is clear that “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered offside.” But since it doesn’t really define what “actually controlling the puck” means, the officials were left on their own to figure out if Coyle’s skate skills were enough. They decided they weren’t. Lots of us watching disagreed, but the officials weren’t wrong, so much as they were caught in a gray area of the rulebook.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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