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Goaltender Interference: The Black Widow's Web

September 19, 2016, 9:31 AM ET [2 Comments]
Paul Stewart
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Some types of spider webs are intricate and meticulous. Other types are messy and seemingly haphazard. If a spider web metaphor was drawn for NHL rules, the ones surrounding goaltender interference would be black widow webs: messy and broadly layered.

More than any other rule in hockey, the rules for incidental contact with the goaltender around the net at the time a goal is scored cause endless confusion and controversy. Thanks to a lack of foresight, the "skate in the air offside" rose with a bullet last year, especially during the playoffs, with the ill-conceived apparatus and procedures of the coach's challenge.

Even so, the goalie interference rules -- which I've written about multiple times here at HockeyBuzz and will continue to do because the same issues pop up over and over again -- are the undisputed champion of the NHL rules that need to be rewritten.

People complain, fairly, that the enforcement of goaltender interference is inconsistent and almost arbitrary except in the most blatant of situations. That's true, but the fault lies within the rule and all its subsets and gray areas that go into making a black-and-white yes/ no (in this case, goal/ no goal) judgment call.

There can never be absolute consistency with it, but we can do a much better job at agreeing upon the standards. The Sidney Crosby goal in Canada's World Cup game against the Czech Republic on Saturday is a perfect example. Equally compelling arguments could be made for why the correct on-ice call and video review decision upon challenge by the Czechs were made but ALSO why a no-goal ruling could be justified.

How is that so? It is because the key determinants are so nebulous within the Rule Book and, therefore, open to a variety of interpretations. First, let's look at the play (which was a brilliant one by Crosby, incidentally, as he scores while still behind the goal line):

The key part of the play occurs with the light contact between Steven Stamkos and goaltender Michal Neuvirth just as Crosby is quickly swooping around the net and just before he intentionally banks the puck in off Neuvirth.

Consideration #1: Was this incidental or more-than-incidental (i.e. worthy of a penalty) contact? While there are plenty of situations where the criteria are murky for the interpretation of "incidental contact," I think everyone can agree that is strictly incidental contact. There was barely any contact here, and what there was was glancing and instantaneous.

Consideration #2: Did Stamkos make a reasonable effort to avoid the incidental contact? Contrary to what many TV announcers proclaim, being bumped or pushed into the goaltender by a defender does not automatically mean an ensuing goal should be allowed. There is also a requirement in the Rule Book that "the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact." In this case, the contact was so glancing and any defender bump was in such close proximity to Neuvirth that it would be hard to justify saying Stamkos could have avoided any sort of glancing contact, assuming the interpretation is that a bump caused it and it was not self-initiated.

Consideration #3: This is big one in this case. As required by the Rule Book, did Neuvirth have the "ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player." Two former NHL goalies that I know strongly opined that with Neuvirth having to contend with Stamkos on one of the net -- and with Crosby scoring the goal so quickly thereafter -- the goaltender WAS hindered in his ability to have a fair chance at a save. Others have said that since Neuvirth wasn't turned or forced back into his net, he still had the ability to attempt a save even if he had barely any time to do so because of Crosby's remarkable quickness.

My personal interpretation here is that the right call was made.

The Czechs were not wrong to challenge it, and I can see their side of it, too. However, above all, this was just a great play by Crosby. I don't think the spirit of the rule was intended for the overturning of a goal such as this one. It's hard enough to score goals as it is, and I don't think the defensive zone was unfairly disadvantaged here other than being victimized by a great player making a great play.

In the bigger picture, however, I would say that, yes, the NHL needs to do a better guidance, education and communication job with the criteria for the goaltender interference rules.

We are bound to see this pop up dozens of times, and cause controversies all over again in the playoffs next spring. There are always going to be tough calls, and plays around the net are the toughest of them all, but with clarified standards and stronger communication, we can at least minimize the cases where the original on-ice call on plays very similar to this stand a fairly significant chance of being overturned. Likewise, I am still skeptical of the efficacy of the coach's challenge setup (including the stakes being a lost timeout) versus the drawbacks.

The root cause of the problem here is that if we are judging whether shades of gray are "closer to white" or "closer to black" without sufficiently defined standards and clear communication, the only predictable possible result is inconsistency. I am proud at how far we have come in the ECAC in particular -- I will explain some of our new standards in an upcoming blog -- but we all have room for improvement.


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, he is the director of officiating for the ECAC.
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