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Too Many Men: Thinking Inside and Outside 'the Box'

June 25, 2022, 11:57 AM ET [1 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Too-many-men infractions are what I call a "housekeeping penalty." Making the call is giving the play the Bad Housekeeping Seal of Disapproval. Then again, most seals make for lousy housekeepers. It's having flippers instead of hands that's the main problem, I believe.

Sorry.... bad joke.

In regard to the too many man on the ice situation in overtime of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, Maybe they’ll add (too many men) to the laundry list of reviewable plays, which will now then add more to the delays in the action. The NHL Rule Book, more than ever, is a house of cards built on a foundation of sand. It's reactive to controversies, not proactive in improving the game.

Specific to the game-ending shift in Game 4, it wasn't just Colorado (who ultimately scored to win the game) that technically had too men many on the ice under the strictest interpretation of the rule. Both teams did. I counted 7-8 players on the ice per side as the teams changed lines.

There was a bit of a scramble at the Tampa bench. There were three players coming on and going off. The linesman was looking across the ice and the back referee was looking up toward the puck. Was there a violation committed on the ice? Yes, because Nazem Kadri was not within five feet of the bench; no doubt a penalty per letter of the law Then again, if you're going to call it to that one team, then you're going to have to look at it for the other team because Tampa ALSO had too many men.

The retreating player, Nathan MacKinnon, had no impact on the play in progress. The player coming onto the ice, Kadri, gained five or more feet to be out in the middle of the rink, to catch a pass. Unfair edge? Not really. He had two guys in front of him. He still had to beat them and he did. A "hockey play", in other words.

People inevitably ask: How did the officials not sit it? If you understand the game, you're going to understand why the referees and the linesmen didn't see this one. The back official was trapped between two players retreating and two coming on. He didn't want to run into them and had his head swiveling around. The first linesman is focused on making sure the play was onside.

The trailing referee is looking at where the pass originated from and making sure no infractions took place behind the play. The other referee is concentrating on the active play; the attacker cutting through between the two defenders. This is often a situation where a defender, if beaten, will foul the attacker in desperation. So making sure the checking attempt is legal is what's front in mind.

As with any Rule, ask why does the too many men penalty exist? It exists to prevent one team from gaining an unfair advantage by materially affecting the play. Was there an unfair advantage here? Not in my opinion.

Unapologetically, I am a big believer in officiating by feel and hockey sense when applying the Rule Book. There are a lot of questionable and often ambiguous aspects to the Rule Book-- I will go into the specifics as relates to this rule momentarily, as pertains to the NHL -- and it is practically impossible and undesirable to call everything that is technically an infraction by the strictest and most literal interpretations.

I've never been a big fan of the too-many-men rules in the NHL. There's no such thing as a perfect Rule Book in any league. Nevertheless, improvements can and should be made to the NHL version. I won't be waiting by the phone for my former bosses to call me for the job of fixing it but it is the truth.

Here's a good example of an interrelated rule set that needs fixing: the too-many-men on the ice (Rule 74), illegal substitution (Rule 68) and premature substitution (Rule 71) penalty protocols. The rules and their subsets have been adjusted and counter-adjusted many times over the years and, in my opinion, still have not been gotten right.

These housekeeping penalty rules need to be reconsidered and rewritten in a more streamlined way that makes sense within the game-flow context. As they are now, they create headaches for officials and teams alike.

For example, a key determining factor in the too-many-men penalty is whether the player(s) exiting the ice are within five feet of the bench when one or more teammates enter the ice and the offending team plays the puck.

Now here's my question: Is five feet (60 inches) truly so sacrosanct? If the player is 62, 66 or even 70 inches from the bench, is the official bending too far to let play continue without calling a penalty? Maybe yes and maybe no. It depends on what is actually going on in the game context.

One piece of the protocol puzzle for on-the-fly changes: Why not have a "substitution area" box added to the ice markings? If the exiting player is outside the area when a teammate enters the game, move on to the next set of criteria for determining if a penalty should be called.

Step two: Which direction is the extra player facing? Is he directly facing the bench or turned to where the play is taking place?

Step three (and this where some decision-making and judgment needs to be exercised by the official): The fundamental quesiton to answer is "Does the offending team gain an unfair advantage by virtue of the extra player on the ice?"

Where is the puck? Does having an extra man aid and abet the offending team in advancing the puck? Alternatively, does it hinder the other team from moving the puck the other way? Was there some sort of physical contact -- such as a body check -- made with an extra player still on the ice?

Another issue: How long has there been an extra player on the ice? Was it just momentary or did he linger long enough to count out the Mississippis?

During my own active refereeing career, I would cut teams some slack when I felt it was merited by the criteria I described earlier. If there was an advantage gained by the offending team, I would call the penalty without hesitation. If appropriate, I'd issue a warning instead.

One time, for example, I addressed a warning to coach Mike Keenan loudly enough for both benches to hear.

I shouted, "Hey, Mike! Don't they require math at St. Lawrence University? Gotta be able to count to six!"

The line changes -- on both sides -- were a lot crisper for the remainder of the game.

At any rate, what we have right now in the NHL is a set of reactive, after-the-fact rules for too-many-men and illegal substitution situations. As I have said in previous blogs, the rulebook is as much a document of hockey history than it is of contemporary regulations.

For instance, Rule 74.4 covers deliberate illegal substitutions. Illegal substitutions in general are addressed as Rule 68. However, the permutation of intentionally sending out one or more extra players for strategic purposes is covered under the subsets of rules for too many men on the ice. Rule 74.4 is a relic of older rule books.

The history behind this rule dates back before the original expansion of the NHL from six to 12 teams. With an existing 5-on-3 against his team late in a game, a coach deliberately kept sending a fourth penalty killer on the ice immediately after faceoffs. Even if a penalty had been called, it would not affect the manpower on the ice for the rest of the game. Thus a rule was added to award a penalty shot against the offending team.

Another old-school alteration of the too-many-men rules -- the wording for not penalizing a team when the player going off or his substitute coming onto the ice cannot avoid being struck by the puck -- came about because of a strategy that had been introduced by Punch Imlach. Punch used to order his Maple Leafs players to deliberately send the puck into the skates of opposing players on sloppy line changes.

I have been asked many times by people what the differences are between "too many men", "illegal substitutions" and "premature substitutions".

The easiest answer to this question is that too many men on the ice is one type of illegal substitution, and the most common category, but it is not the only one.

For example, there have been instances where a substitute player is sent onto the ice to try to stop a breakaway on the goaltender (the rule is to award a penalty shot) or prevent an impending empty net goal (award a goal). There have also been past instances where a player has attempted to enter the ice from the penalty box before the expiration of his penalty or when a substitute player comes out from the bench too soon after a teammate exits the box and before he reaches the bench.

The premature substitution rule covers the specific situation of a goalie skating to bench for an extra attacker and a teammate entering the ice before the goalie is within the allowed five-foot area of the bench. This is NOT a penalty, but play must be halted.

Under the current NHL rules, the ensuing faceoff after a premature substitution is to take place at center ice when play is stopped beyond the red line. When play is stopped prior to the puck reaching the red line, the faceoff is dropped at the nearest faceoff dot within the zone where play was halted.

Rule 71 does not cover the handling of what to do in a situation where a goalie goes to the bench for an extra attacker and then tries to return to his position on the fly. Rather, this protocol is covered under the too-many-men rule.

For instance, Rule 71.4 states that "Once the goalkeeper has been removed for an extra attacker in overtime during the regular season, he must wait for the next stoppage of play before returning to his position." Otherwise a bench minor must be assessed.

Get the picture? We don't need to reinvent the wheel here. But what needs to be done is to take all of these overlapping rules and addendums to the protocols and streamline them into something more systematic and coherent.

Chintzy too many men penalties are far from unique to the NHL or North American hockey in general. They also pop up too often in European and international hockey. In my final season with the KHL, I put out proposal to tweak the rule, which I still think would make sense.

I would like to see a line added to the ice markings and placed five feet from the bench areas. If the sixth player is entering or retreating to the bench and he is inside the box, there would be no call. If the sixth player steps out of the safety of the box to enter play and is now more than five feet out with six players outside the area excluding the goalie, then the call would be too many men.

This would gives the linesmen a clear and definite visual and verbal description of what should be called and eliminates the vaguely worded aspects of the rule: If there are six men outside the box, it's a penalty. If the sixth enters play but another player steps into the safety box, no penalty.

In the KHL arenas that I inspected, I found that what may be thought of as a luxury actually is a major contributing factor to the Too Many Men situations.

The standard length of NHL and most North American rink bench areas has the coach standing behind the players at about 2 feet. The length of the bench with a door at either end is 24 feet. Usually, the trainer and the equipment men handle the doors. The coaches stand at the ends for D and for Forwards with the head coach pacing between them.

Players going on the ice jump over the dasher, players coming back to the bench usually go through he two doors. The D sits at the end closest to their goalie. The Forwards sit closer to the end that they are attacking.

These players are so jumpy, and they don't pay attention. They jump up and down, blocking the coaches view of the ice and the number of players who are going on and coming off the ice.

For the on-ice officials, the linesmen and referees who must weave their way on the ice through the bench areas that combined measure nearly the half length of the one side of the rink, it become a challenge to not get knocked about by players who never seem to see us.

To be able to track players, watch the puck, call their lines or get to the end zone or up to the red line becomes a nightmare.

The solution for the officials is that the linesman on the opposite side of the benches must be the responsible party to keep track of the numbers of players on the ice. If the Referee is on the bench side,he is likely not getting a good view. The deep referee is concentrating on end zone play and action around the net and the crease,he won't be much help as the benches are 60 feet away and out of his area of action and concentration.

There MUST be a more realistic approach as to what is too many men. If the extra player gets a chance to take the puck and go while the player he is replacing is well over the line, then make the call. If the extra man stops a break by the opponent who has a chance to move with the puck that too should be a penalty.

The only aspect that we in officiating must strongly instruct is that the linesman on the side opposite the benches or the back referee must quickly count the players on the ice almost as often as they take a breath. It should become a sixth sense for the officials to make the count by a quick perusal.

My view -- not just for too many men rules but the entire Rule Book -- is that it needs an edit. They need to take the entire rulebook, review and edit it. There are too many rules that are counterintuitive, contradictory because new things were added and not reconciled with previous versions that say something a bit differently or are simply antiquated and no longer apply to today's game.


A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, 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.
Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart
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