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Before the Playoffs, Time for a Goalie Interference Refresher

April 11, 2024, 2:50 PM ET [2 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Time to Review Goalie Interference Before the Playoffs

This is an evergreen topic in my blogs and a timely one to revisit with the final games of the regular season stretch drive and the Stanley Cup playoffs looming: What does -- and does not -- constitute goaltender interference. Even with replay, the actual rules are sometimes counterintuitive and the in-practice rulings derived are unacceptably inconsistent.

Goalie Inteference Rules: A History Lesson

The Rule Book, at its root, is a history book. Rules have origins and evolutions. Some aspects become outdated over time, while others require updating after careful case-study review. Of all the rules, inteference with the goaltender (Rule 69 and its many subsections) are the thorniest.

Hockey has changed a lot since the days of Ken Dryden and Bernie Parent. The goal crease dimensions have changed. The goalies themselves have gotten much bigger physically and much stronger physically. The goalies wear much more padding and are more protected than they ever were back when I was a player. Even with the advent of the trapezoid, goalies still roam around the ice much more than they did in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The goaltending crease, which eventually had blue paint added to it in addition to the red boundaries and goal line in order to make the contrast clearer to the rest of the ice surface, was and still is intended to be safe haven for the goalies.

They cannot be run into, jostled or otherwise physically hampered from having a fair chance to make a save while stationed in the crease. That included ostensibly outside-the-crease shenanigans such as the infamous case of Steve Avery standing in front of the net and waving his stick near Martin Brodeur solely to cause a distraction.

For good reason, goaltenders and defenders have historically been vigilant about protecting the crease. There have been goalies who gleefully jabbed or slashed at opposing with the stick, most notably Billy Smith and Ron Hextall. Smith got me real good one night in the Island. Some opposing players used to put a little extra padding behind their legs under their long underwear -- or even around the cup area -- as added protection.

For a time, the NHL tried to establish a zero-tolerance policy when it came to opposing players venturing into the crease. That was part of the genesis of the toe-in-crease regulations of the 1990s that caused many otherwise good goals to be disallowed and also lived on in Stanley Cup lore for one that got allowed when Brett Hull scored the Cup-winning goal.

Once the crease violation rules got loosened again -- which was not a bad thing and of itself -- the NHL reopened a can of worms in terms of defining when to disallow goals for goaltender interference and explaining the boundaries and exceptions of acceptable and unacceptable "incidental contact."

The NHL Rule Bookdoes not establish a definition of incidental contact. Rather it puts forth a situation-by-situation set of directives for how certain plays should ruled. Here are 10 examples:

1. With the goalie inside his crease, an attacking player makes incidental contact with the goalie at the same time the puck is about to enter the net.

NHL directive: No goal. I have heard many a local television announcer holler, "Why was that goal disallowed?! That was incidental contact!" Well, yes, exactly. If the goalie is in his crease, even contact that does not affect the puck going into the net creates a no-goal.

2. With the goalie just outside his crease, an attacking player makes incidental contact with the goalie at the same time the puck is about to enter the net.

Directive: Goal. The goalie being outside the crease turns this otherwise identical scenario into a good goal.

3. An attacking player has been pushed toward the goalkeeper by a defending player, careening heavily into the goaltender as the puck is about to enter the net.

Directive: No goal, penalty on the attacking player. The wording here is intentionally a bit vague -- the next scenario fills in a key missing piece -- but the onus is still one the attacking player to at least try to avoid the contact if he's pushed by a defender. Simply being pushed by a defender in the vicinity of net does NOT give the attacker license to steamroll the goalie with no effort to avoid the contact. Remember that the next time your local team announcer is hollering about how "he was CLEARLY pushed into the goalie" and ignores a lack of effort by the attacking player to avoid the contact. Was there sufficient opportunity for the attacker try to twist his body? Was there any effort to at least slow himself down? If the answer is no, the attacking team gets penalized.

4. An attacking player has been pushed into the goalkeeper by a defender, attempting and failing to twist out of the way to avoid contact, and the puck enters the net.

Directive: Goal. The attacker got pushed and the contact with the goalie was inadvertent so the defending team pays the price here with a goal against.

5. A defending player has been pushed into the goaltender by an attacker, making incidental contact with the goaltender as a goal is about to be scored.

Directive: No goal. Additionally, there may or may not be a penalty on the attacking player depending on the force and severity of his actions in fouling or pushing the defender into the goalie.

6. There is a loose puck around the net, and an attacking player makes incidental contact with the goalie in the crease as both are attempting to play a loose puck.

Directive: Good goal. In a loose puck situation, the incidental contact does not create a washout of the goal, even if the goalie is within the crease.

7. An attacking player, remaining in constant motion skates through the width of crease, does make contact with the goalkeeper but impedes the goalie's freedom of movement to go across and attempt a save.

Directive: No goal. The key hint here is that the goalie's ability to move over in his crease to attempt the save is limited. The lack of contact and continual motion by the attacker is irrelevant.

8. An attacking player sets up a screen by standing in a stationary position on the crease line. The goalie's vision is impaired and the puck goes into the net.

Directive: Goal. This is just a classic screen, and it's fine if the attacking forward has planted himself right along the crease line so long as he's not inside the crease to impede the goaltender.

9. With an attacking player inside the crease, the goaltender initiates contact with the opposing player as the goalie tries to get squared for the shot. The attacking player vacates the position immediately and the puck simultaneously enters the net.

Directive: No goal, no penalty. The NHL Rules lean toward protecting goaltenders and the sanctity of the crease. So even though the goalie initiates the contact here as he tries to get set to make the save and the attacker promptly exits the crease, it is considered a no-goal due to interference with the goaltender. If the attacking player did not vacate the crease, it would be no goal and a penalty on the attacker even though it was the goalie that initiated the contact.

10. A goalie initiates contact with an attacking player to establish position in the crease by forcefully hitting the opponent in the back of his helmet with his blocker. The opposing player vacates the crease immediately at the time a goal is scored.

Directive: No goal, roughing penalty on the goaltender. If the attacking player did not vacate the crease, it would be no goal with offsetting penalties. Again, this is a scenario where fans and announcers squawk about "why is it no goal if the goalie was attacking the other team's player?" It's because the rule, in its spirit, is designed to discourage attacking players from preventing the goalie from doing his job. That give doesn't a goalie free reign to rough/slash/etc the attacker (hence, a penalty on the goalie).

Is all of that clear to you? No? Don't feel bad. The confusion extends to all corners of our sport: players, coaches, off-ice officials, broadcaster, print media, fans, even to interpretive disagreements among on-ice officials as to which standard(s) fit most appropriately to the play that unfolded on the ice.

As for myself, I have always understood why goalie get worked up about defending their turf. There are so many nuances and inconsistencies about when they are/aren't protected in the crease and there also a lot of injuries each season incurred in collisions at the net.

Are Goalies Too Coddled in Rule Interpretations?

Now, here's an even bigger question: Do we coddle goalies too much in today's game? I would say the answer is yes.

The goaltender's crease is not necessarily an absolute safe haven for goaltenders under the NHL Rule Book despite the blue paint that would suggest otherwise. The rules about goaltender interference are actually situational, and sometimes counterintuitive.

I understand why goalies get riled up about keeping attacking players out of the crease. I'm in favor of more stringently protecting goalies by more effectively dissuading opposing players from crashing into them in the crease.

However, it seems to me that goalies want to have their cake and eat it, too.

1) They like the heavy emphasis on shot-blocking in today's game, but only until one of their teammate accidentally deflects the puck on a partial block or when they unknowingly create a screen and the puck gets through. Then they stare daggers through their mask at the offending teammate. Most goalies have the good sense not to throw teammates under the bus publicly, but people who are not in the heat of battle on the ice may be surprised that it's hardly uncommon for players and their own goalie to periodically get more peeved with each other during a game than with the opposing goalie. Of course, all is forgotten afterwards, especially after a win.

2) Back when I played, goalies were fair game once they left the crease to play the puck. They could be physically checked off the puck or pinned to the boards the same as any other player. That factor was largely removed by subsequent rule changes. As far as the trapezoid goes, if a goalie is skilled at playing the puck, let him. There were actually more turnovers and goals when goalies could roam as they pleased.

3) Goalie equipment has sometimes between reduced in maximum size by changes in the NHL rule book, but it has not gone far enough in my view. It's still too big and more about blocking the puck -- more and more goalies these days are blockers not savers -- than about protection. First, we fix the goalie's equipment and we will see more goals without players crashing the net. Reduced the collisions at the net, and there are fewer goalie injuries. One feeds into the other.

All in all -- and I guess, once again, I won't be getting a Christmas card from the "Goalies' Union" this year, although I actually hold their importance to the team in the highest regard -- the tail is still wagging the dog. Goalies want it every which way and, of course, it's inevitably to suit themselves and make an admittedly tough job a little easier rather than doing what's good for the game and realizing that every other goalie will be in the same boat, too.

Ultimately, I think it should be an either/or choice. Goalies deserve either to get maximum protection in the crease (with the exception being a stray skate that in no way affects a goal) OR to keep the pads as is. If they want the crease all to themselves at all times, they should lose additional width on the pads and gloves. This can be done without compromising safety.

Incidentally, any goalie who talks about needing bigger pads for safety and yet decides to avoid wearing cut-resistant socks to protect their Achilles tendon, should re-think the issue. There is a hammer to wield within the rule book -- all players, including goalies, must be properly uniformed -- but it doesn't get enforced.

One final thought while I've already got the goalies ticked off at me (what else is new?): Back when I played, a team's number one goalie was expected to start in back-to-backs, three-in-fours, etc. and it wasn't considered some Herculean task. Nowadays, if a back-to-back isn't split between the two goalies, people want a Congressional investigation.

With all the extra padding, the kid-gloves treatment, advanced training methods and the undeniably superior conditioning of today's goalies, have we seen a reduction in goalie injuries? Not really. I am not a goaltending expert but I would venture a guess that the overuse of the butterfly has a good deal to do with it. On the flip side, I think goalies are plenty protected under the Rule book, and sometimes even excessively so for the good of the game.

Spirit of the Rule Book: A Lesson from My Dad

As most of you know, officiating is a family business in the Stewart clan. My late grandfather, Bill Stewart Sr., earned enshrinement in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as a longtime NHL referee and Stanley Cup winning coach. He was also a longtime Major League Baseball umpire. My father, also named Bill Stewart, was a longtime multi-sport official (hockey, baseball, football), scholastic football coach and high school teacher.

On multiple occasions, my dad officiated games in which I played. Believe me, I got no special treatment. In hockey, he dispatched me to the penalty box many times. In baseball, I remember one particular time where he rang me up on a borderline called third strike. The most I could have done with the pitch was foul it off.

I questioned his call. Very bluntly, he told me, "You're looking for a gift. Next time, swing the bat. You're a .300 hitter. Swing."

I thought the pitch missed the outside corner. He thought it was on the black. Either way, I should have protected the plate with two strikes. There's a lesson here, bringing the sport in question back to hockey.

Too often in games, I see teams looking for a gift from on-ice or replay rulings. Lengthy replay delays after potential goals to determine onside/offside rulings on fraction-of-an-inch entries (especially when it is unrelated to the actual goal itself) are a pet peeve. That's NOT the spirt of the offside rules themselves or the reason for replay. Offside reviews are intended to take goals scored on blatantly offside plays -- think 1980 Stanley Cup Final Game 6 or Daniel Briere's four-feet offside goal in the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal -- off the scoreboard.

When we need multi-angle freeze frames to tell if the puck was completely over the blue line and if any part of the potentially offending skate was still touching/parallel to any part of the line, we've taken away all the human element and the spirit of the Rule Book. Meanwhile, the "conclusive angle" might not even be the best possible one. For a great example, see how a puck that's a hair over/just touching the back of the goal line looks quite different when a camera rotates on a 360 degree basis.

I think there's often a tendency to focus on situations where the wrong call is made. Here's an example where the RIGHT decision was made by not reviewing the play.

On the play, Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov immediately looked to the officials, hoping for a gift: a review for goalie interference. On the New York version of the broadcast (the video here is from the Philadelphia broadcast), the announcers promptly questioned why there wasn't a review for goalie interference, since a tying goal in the final 10 seconds of the third period was at stake.

Plain and simple: There wasn't a video review because there was no need for a review. If we start reviewing plays like these for the slightest of incidental contact with a loose puck in the blue paint, we might as well take dozens of perfectly good -- and non-controversial when left alone -- goals off the scoreboard.

Maybe that's why the Goalie Union didn't send me a birthday card, either.


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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