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Abdelkader, Broken Sticks and Rulebook Tricks

March 24, 2015, 1:15 PM ET [8 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
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Two days ago, the Detroit Red Wings defeated the St. Louis Blues in overtime on a goal by Justin Abdelkader. As it turned out, the Detroit forward had broken his stick.

Perhaps the shaft of the stick was already compromised or perhaps it broke just from the combination of the Detroit player bearing down on it as he is swinging near the skates and pads of the goaltender in the scramble near the net. With the now-broken stick, Abdelkader puts the puck in the net on a second effort.

This play has caused a lot of controversy the last few days. The NHL rule covering the infraction, Rule 10.3, states the following: "A broken stick is one which, in the opinion of the Referee, is unfit for normal play.... A player without a stick may participate in the game. A player whose stick is broken may participate in the game provided he drops the broken stick. A minor penalty shall be imposed for an infraction of this rule."

Now, there is a lot to say here about the illogical and contradictory nature of the NHL Rule Book.

First of all, there IS discretion allowed for the referee to rule on whether a stick is or is not broken -- which often happens in rapid-sequence, close quarters battles such as these -- and whether the puck is played with a broken stick or the breakage happens simultaneously to playing the puck.

In this case, replays show the stick was broken before Abdelkader, who probably didn't even know it was broken until he went to stash the loose puck into the cage, went for the puck in the crease. As such, an automatic penalty should have been called on Abdelkader (the rule book gives zero discretion to the official in that area, even if the infraction is pretty clearly accidental).

Here's the true kicker. Show me where Rule 10.3 says anything about a would-be goal scored with a broken stick having to be disallowed. It doesn't say one word in that regard.

Now. common sense suggests that if playing with a broken stick is illegal, a goal scored with said illegal stick should also be deemed illegal and waved off as play would be dead with the puck crossing the goal line and the penalty imposed. However, common sense and the NHL Rulebook have a distant relationship with one another.

As a matter of fact, a separate rule pertaining to illegal sticks (Rule 10.5) explicitly states that a goal scored with a stick deemed illegal after a subsequent challenge and measurement --most commonly for an excessive curve -- is NOT subject to being disallowed yet it, too, carries a penalty (plus a fine) for the offending player.

The most logical ruling in the Abdelkader situation would have been to disallow the goal, because the stick was broken beforehand -- albeit a fraction of a second earlier -- and correspondingly impose the minor penalty. Neither happened here. But I go back again to the bigger Rule book conundrum the NHL created for itself.

Granted, it doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense to allow the goal with a broken stick. However, if we explicitly have to allow goals when someone deliberately plays with one form of illegal stick then why is it automatically the wrong call when the Rulebook provides zero instruction on goals scored when accidentally playing with another permutation of an illegal stick?

It is debates like these that used to make me so unpopular with my post-McCauley bosses in the NHL's officiating and hockey operations department.


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.

Today, Stewart is the chairman of the officiating and discipline committee for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials, while also maintaining a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.
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