/Those Are The Rules: A Look at Officiating and the NHL Rulebook

Those Are The Rules: A Look at Officiating and the NHL Rulebook

It’s not always easy, but someone has to do it.

When time slows down, and all the eyes in the hockey world are on you; your decision can affect the whole outcome of the game. That’s a lot of pressure for someone to have to shoulder, but there are a select few individuals who welcome it. These individuals are the officials of hockey, the toughest job in the game.

Sure, being a goalie in the closing minutes of a tied game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals is pretty stressful. You can’t deny that immense moment of the opposing team barreling down the ice on a 2 on 1 breakout and you’re the last stop between going home and not sleeping the rest of the night cuddling with the cup. But imagine being the linesman who just made a close call on the play being offsides on that 2 on 1. The whole hockey world staring as you confer with the other officials about the call. That has to be more intense. Arguably, it’s more difficult to be the ref in this situation than the goalie.

Hockey officials have a tough job, and someone always picks up the rule book and opens it up.

No Respect At All

Here we go again…

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to talk about getting a lack of respect in his act. Obviously, it was in jest and a great way to make a clever mockery of situations. Otis Redding first wrote and recorded the song “Respect”, but Aretha Franklin took it and made it a musical phenomenon.

Asking for some R-E-S-P-E-C-T is what officials have to deal with on a regular basis. It’s easy to take jabs at refs for missing a call or making a questionable decision. Hockey officials are human, after all, even though some fans would say otherwise. At some point, it’s bound to happen during the course of the game. A coach, a player, the fans and even other refs can disagree with a call on the ice. rules-sign-peewee-funny

While most of these incidents go on without much of an event, other times it gets out of hand. It’s not just the pro level either.

At the peewee level, it’s sometime just as prevalent. How many times have you seen a sign like this on Facebook or plastered on your favorite hockey site? It seems silly to think that people at a kids hockey game would get that upset, but it happens. We have all witnessed first hand some of the things refs have to deal with at these games: wayward parents yelling about their kid who was just upended and demanding justice. It’s become a joke that the hockey moms and dads are going to show up eventually and ruin the fun.

It’s become a serious enough problem that the hockey community is attempting to correct it. It’s rough seeing a parent or a little league coach go crazy on an official for just doing their job.

The National Hockey League(NHL) has rules in the book to help combat the ref abuse at their level.

39.1    General Description – A player, goalkeeper, Coach or non-playing person shall not challenge or dispute the rulings of an official before, during or after a game. A player, goalkeeper, Coach or non-playing person shall not display unsportsmanlike conduct including, but not limited to, obscene, profane or abusive language or gestures, comments or a personal nature to degrade an official, or persist in disputing a ruling after being told to stop or after being penalized for such behavior.
39.2     A minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct shall be assessed under this rule for the following infractions:
  • (i.) Any player or goalkeeper who challenges or disputes the ruling of an official.
  • (ii.) Any identifiable player or goalkeeper who uses obscene, profane or abusive language or gestures directed at any on or off-ice official.
  • (iii.) Any player or players (including goalkeepers) who bang the boards with their sticks or other objects, or who, in any manner show disrespect for an official’s decision. If this is done in order to get the attention of the on-ice official for a legitimate reason (i.e. serious injury, illness, etc.), then discretion must be exercised by the Referees.
  • (iv.) When a Captain, Alternate Captain or any other player or goalkeeper comes off the players’ bench to question or protest a ruling by an official on the ice.
  •  If a player or goalkeeper bangs the glass in protest of the Goal Judge’s ruling. If he persists, a misconduct penalty would then be assessed.

Thankfully, this rule isn’t called the way it’s written. If it were to, then every time a player said anything back to the official, they could technically be called for a 2 minute penalty.

Hockey refs are just as tough as the players they officiate and can handle the arguments.

This doesn’t stop the odd player or coach from going off sometimes. Arguing with the officials is just as common place as goals, penalties, and checks, it’s just a part of the game. Eye sight jokes and the like have been around forever, and they won’t be going away any time soon. Referees are thick skinned and know that eventually someone will disagree with them. They handle each situation uniquely, as some plays just aren’t black and white. The NHL is helping the on-ice officials by giving the them better views of replays and being able to contact the “war room” at the Toronto headquarters. This has lessened the burden of the on-ice refs, as they can now seek a better view or ask about a ruling on a play

The Situation Room

The NHL headquarters in Toronto has a “war room” where every NHL game is seen on HD big screens. Sounds like a dream job? Well, it’s not that easy; many angles are used with many plays before a decision is final. Did the puck cross the line? Was there a high stick? All these questions and more get answered in the situation room every day and night.

With each game visible and every angle filmed, it’s not often that something slides past the ever watching eye of the war room officials. The NHL video room has been quite useful since it was implemented. Offering a fast turnaround on rules or goal situations has greatly improved the game.

The refs aren’t the only ones who can ask for help with a call from the all-seeing eye in Toronto. Coaches can challenge a ruling on the ice. Let’s say a goal is scored from a potential illegal play. The coach can risk their timeout to have the play further reviewed. The video and the call are looked at immediately in the video room. Officials communicate with refs at the game about what they see. Nowadays, the refs have tablets that they can view along with the war room to get a visual of what the war room official is seeing. After the war room reviews the play, the ruling is given to the refs, and they give the call to everyone at the game (if it has to do with a puck-over-the-line play or a high stick).

While it is nice to dream of a room with thirty televisions all locked on to hockey and you get to see every second of every game, it’s also one of the hardest jobs in hockey.

Throw The Book At ‘Em

nhl-rulebookThe rule book is filled with things for every situation, from the basics down to the some quirky rules that don’t come up often. Ever changing, its adapted over time to fit the game’s pace and style.

Sometimes, big changes are worked in over the years and other times in response to an immediate loophole. Certain players and coaches have even had rules created after them. From the Marty Brodeur goalie trapezoid rule to Bobby Hull’s banana blade rule, players have made their marks in the book. Originally, when a team was assessed a minor penalty, the opposing side would have the full 2 minutes of the infraction to score as many goals as possible. In today’s game, after a team has scored on the PowerPlay, the 2 minutes are wiped and the shorthanded team regains its player.

In the early years the Montreal Canadians were so talented at scoring they would rack up a ton of goals during the 2 minutes of PowerPlay time. The league voted during that offseason to implement the rule that we know today.

Helmet with Visor

Not all rules are used to help balance the game. Some are geared towards player safety. The helmet rule in 1979 was introduced to help protect players from injury as a result of pucks and sticks or other players. There was a grandfather clause, though, as players who had signed contracts prior to the rule going into effect could still choose to go helmet-less. The last player to not wear a helmet in the NHL was Craig MacTavish who ended his career in 1997.

Starting in the 2013-2014 season the NHL added visors to the helmet rule. All incoming new players are required to wear a visor to help protect their face and head during games. Again, a grandfather clause was put in place for players who were in the NHL prior to the rule, and just as with the 1979 rule, most players are adopting the visor but some are still holding out.

Sometimes, rule changes are used to improve the speed of the game. After the lockout of the 2004-2005 season, the removal of the two-line pass rule went into effect. A two-line pass, also know as an offsides pass, was when a player from their defensive zone passed the puck to a teammate who was beyond the center red line. The play was then stopped and a faceoff occurred in the offending team’s zone. With the improved passing space, players could create more breakaway chances resulting in more exciting goals.

Other rules such as the 3v3 overtime rule also seem to be a big hit with die hard and casual fans. The 3v3 overtime period adds a certain excitement that just needs to be witnessed.
The constant flow of back and forth breakouts is sure to cause your heart to race as each team gets major scoring opportunities.

While that rule seems to be loved by most fans, sometimes they appear to miss their mark.


Some fans dislike the shootout to decide a game. In the 2005-2006 season, the shootout was brought in to eliminate ties. Personally, I am not a fan of this change as it has put the win on one player’s stick (EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim is a Flyers fan. Of course he hates the shootout).  Each team gets 3 attempts to score in a 1-on-1 attempt against the goalie. It seem especially slower now after the excitement of the 3v3 overtime period. While it has brought some great highlight reel goals, it takes the team sport that hockey is and makes it about an individual player. I would rather see a 4v4 overtime followed by 3v3 until a winner is found. I understand it puts the players at more risk for injury, so its unlikely we would see this change. I would be happy to see ties make a return in favor of the shootout to end a game. Thankfully, this rule only applies to the regular season and it’s not included in playoff play.

It’s Not About The Glamour

Being a hockey official on or off the ice it always going to be tough. Whether it’s facing ridicule from an overzealous hockey mom or a well respected NHL coach, they are always going to need thick skin. While some fans would like to see better officials or a complete change, I think we should be grateful that some of us want to put the zebra stripes on, grab a whistle, and make a living dropping pucks.

Imagine a hockey without the rules, or the ability to review a goal. While I know it’s frustrating to see your team get call after call against them or have a ruling not go your team’s way, I urge you to think about what it would be like to go back to the old days without many rules.

Hockey as a whole, not just the NHL, is better with the rules in place. Every sport needs rules to ensure the quality of play and safety of the participants and the spectators. While it’s nostalgic to look through the looking glass at the older times of heavy hits, barbarian-like fights and the savage time that was the days of old, it’s much better to see the speed and finesse of great players who seem to move across the ice without worry of a flying elbow or crushing check to the head.

The refs don’t do it for the fame or the chance to make a name for themselves. They are there to make sure the game they love continues to grow and flourish. There are three on ice officials for the average professional hockey game. While being easily out numbered by the ten players and the tens of thousands of fans in the arena, the hockey official stands their ground and helps control the chaos that is hockey.


Note: Some info has been changed thanks to Reddit user /u/ScoutingTheRefs. Originally, two lines said, “Every play, every call, every angle gets looked at before a decision is final. Did the puck cross the line? Was the play offsides? Which team touched the puck last before it left the play area? All these questions and more get answered in the situation room every day and night,” and, “After the war room reviews the play, the ruling is given to the refs, and they give the call to everyone at the game.” Those lines were changed to, “many angles are used with many plays before a decision is final. Did the puck cross the line? Was there a high stick? All these questions and more get answered in the situation room every day and night,” and “After the war room reviews the play, the ruling is given to the refs, and they give the call to everyone at the game (if it has to do with a puck-over-the-line play or a high stick).”

Jim McBride is the “Beyond the Ice” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can contact him at jmcbride@gnghockey.com.

Jim McBride is a Contributing Writer for Good Night Good Hockey. He also loves dogs. Note: He is not this dog. The primary way of contacting Jim is at this email: jmcbride@gnghockey.com.