Wanna blog? Start your own hockey blog with My HockeyBuzz. Register for free today!

Spirit of the Rule vs. Letter of the Law

January 14, 2024, 6:55 PM ET [1 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
My own philosophy on penalty calling is that games should neither be over-officiated nor under-officiated. I went by the Frank Udvari Principle -- if you were playing in the game, would you be ticked off if something happened to your teammate and went uncalled? -- in feeling the pulse of the game and making calls.

It kind of amuses me (only kind of because it's an actual problem) that officials are pretty much put in a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation when it comes to routine penalty calling. Call things too tight and folks gripe that "no one pays to see you referee, and you need to just let the players play." Call things too leniently and "the officials aren't calling enough penalties."

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Actually, the whole concept of "just enforce the rule book as it's written" is a laughable idea presented by folks who never officiated in their lives and really don't know the rule book. The NHL rule book is filled with vague and/or contradictory regulations.

If the rules were to be enforced 100 percent according to the book, guess what would happen? Without exaggeration, if every little grab, hook, slash, momentary interference, etc. were called every game, there would be 30+ power plays combined. That's especially true in the playoffs where teams fight for every foot of space.

Calling it "strictly by the book" is an impracticality. There is ALWAYS interpretation and degrees of choice involved in real-life officiating. When the rule book is interpreted by only the narrowest and strictest of terms, hockey games become unplayable, unwatchable and downright dull. Trust me, no one wants to see everything that technically violates some part of the rulebook called as a penalty.

However, it is hardly anything new for people in and around hockey to criticize the officiating. Long before I was born and even well before the days when my grandfather was an NHL referee, peopled wonder aloud "why can't they just call penalties strictly by the book?" rather than officials applying a certain level of case-by-case judgment.

Story time: In the mid-1980s when I was refereeing in the AHL on my way up to the NHL, there was a push to severely crack down on all forms of obstruction (sound familiar?). I had a discussion about it with John McCauley, who told me he was being pressed to tell all of the officials to call the rules "as strictly as possible."

I worked an offsite exhibition game in the AHL where I did exactly as I was told. I called every rule book violation -- no matter how slight -- a penalty. The final tally: a combined 40 minor penalties.

Needless to say, both teams hated it, because the players couldn't play the game. The coaches hated it. The fans especially hated it. The newspaper guys on deadline hated it. The league hated it, too. Afterwards, I got a phone call from AHL vice president Gordie Anziano. The conversation began the same way that many of my dialogues went with Gordie.

"Jesus H. Christ, Stewy, what happened out there?" Gordie asked. "On second thought, I probably don't want to know."

"Gordie, I was told to call the game as strictly as possible, so that's what I did," I replied.

"So is this the new Paul Stewart?" he asked.

"No," I said. "Just giving the people what they want."

This season in the NHL, I've seen a lot of leniency on calling minor penalties for players closing their hand on the puck. It's supposed to be an "automatic" penalty, but it really never has been. Personally, I don't have a huge issue with letting play continue in a catch-and-drop scenario. In other words, rather than batting it down, a player snags an aerial puck and immediately lets it drop the ice to try to play in legally with his stick. If the practical effect is the same, OK.

It depends on the duration, of course. It's not a football. You can't catch it, skate a stride or two and then drop it.

It also crosses the leniency borderline if you toss the puck ahead in the defensive zone. This happened two nights ago in Minnesota. When you watch the replay, ignore the rest of the play. The hand pass attempt (in the D zone) is OK. The rush the other way and eventual goal are fine. The issue is the closed hand on the puck that enabled the hand pass. This one was too blatant NOT to call.

That's where the slippery slope because TOO slippery. The spirit of the rule is to prevent a team from gaining an advantage -- such as keeping the puck away from an oncoming opponent
or tossing it to a teammate to advance up ice. It was a missed call, and it's not one that's subject to a review or challenge.

If no goal was scored, would anyone remember the play? Probably not. But no one has a crystal ball to predict how the rest of the sequence was going to unfold. This was a play where a call was merited under both the letter of the law and the spirit of the rule.


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.
Join the Discussion: » 1 Comments » Post New Comment
More from Paul Stewart
» Before the Playoffs, Time for a Goalie Interference Refresher
» The Stew: Kevin Pollack, We Nearly Missed, Thank You Fans
» Officiating: Reasonable Doubt vs Miscarriages of Justice
» My Advice to Matt Rempe
» Greig, Rielly and "The Code"