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Greig, Rielly and "The Code"

February 13, 2024, 6:40 PM ET [16 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Hockey is an emotional game. Friction and confrontation have always been part of the game when emotions run high. Everyone who has ever played the game has done things on the ice in the heat of the moment they'd never do in another context.

Nevertheless, there are limits to what's allowable. I'm not talking about on-ice penalties, per se. I'm talking about things that merit supplemental discipline from a league and/or which can be policed by the players on the ice.

Back when I played and then refereed in the NHL, there really was an unwritten "code". That doesn't mean the line never got crossed. For example, Dave Brown (normally an honorable tough guy) responded to Tomas Sandstrom spearing Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe by cross-checking Sandström upside his head and received a 15-game suspension. Dale Hunter assaulted Pierre Turgeon with a very late and high hit for having the "audacity" to score a goal late in a playoff game that Hunter's team about to lose.

Generally speaking, though, there were unwritten rules of engagement. I was an enforcer but I never went after an opponent's finesse players. There was never even a thought of it. If someone did a teammate dirty, I'd drop the gloves and take the fight to the offending player. I detested "stickwork" opponents such as Bobby Schmautz, both then and now, because such players regularly used their stick as a weapon and then didn't want to answer for it. In short, they cared nothing for the Code.

Something else about the Code: there was an understanding that the retribution should not be the equivalent of using a bazooka when a fly swatter was OK. The response should be proportionate to the initial action.

In terms of the recent incident between Ottawa's Ridly Greig and Toronto's Morgan Rielly, it was the epitome of an outsized response. Greig was, shall we say, a little bit overzealous in the way he scored an empty-net goal. I don't blame Rielly for being ticked off when a home-free Greig blasted a slap shot into the net from a few feet away. Greig is a good kid from an honorable hockey family. He got carried away in the moment. He showed up and embarrassed the Maple Leafs.

Appropriate responses: A stinky glove to the face, perhaps. Or simply drop the gloves and give Greig no choice but to fight, accepting the consequence of a late-game instigator penalty.

Excessive response: A cross-check to the head. Don't give me that garbage about Rielly not meaning to catch Greig that high. It doesn't matter. Players are responsible for their sticks at all times, and Rielly used his recklessly. He really could have inflicted serious injury. The punishment did not fit the "crime".

I didn't like what Greig did. It was unsportsmanlike to show up an opponent. That said, the losing team doesn't get to dictate how gingerly the other team must close out the game.

Rielly is going to get a pretty hefty suspension. The supplemental discipline will -- deservedly -- be harsher than the consequence of a late-game instigator penalty. It doesn't make Rielly a dirty player (this is not normally his style) and it doesn't make him a bad guy. Two wrongs don't make a right, but the "bigger" wrong here was Rielly's. And no matter how much Don Cherry praises Rielly's actions, that doesn't change the facts.

By the way, the Code applies -- or should apply -- to officials, too. In my area of the country, a ref knocked a girl down in a high school game. I had one from last year when a player slugged a ref. I was at that game, and I know that kid. It doesn't matter. The standards are the same, and the line is getting crossed too often.


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.
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