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Coyle Offside, Letter vs Spirit of Rules, and the NHL Case Book

November 7, 2019, 2:50 PM ET [12 Comments]
Paul Stewart
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The offside challenge -- and eventual overturn -- of Charlie Coyle's would-be goal earlier this week in a game between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens raises several interesting questions that I believe are worth discussing and chipping in my two cents. Hell, I'll toss in two dimes as well and make it my 22-cents worth.

1. Was the play offside? Under the NHL Rule Book, a player must have both possession and control when he brings the puck entirely over the blue line. Coyle had the puck in his skates, which SOMETIMES constitutes possession and control but not always. (You won't find that permutation in the NHL Rule Book, which I will explain later). To me, under the letter of the law in the NHL Rule Book, Coyle was offside.

2. How do you define "possession and control?" Coyle had the puck in his skates and kicked it across with him. This is where things get dicey. In these situations, the generally accepted standard for calling the play onside is whether the player's skate has contact with the puck as it crosses the blueline; basically in lieu of his stick having contact with the puck. Coyle did not yet have contact, and thereby was not quite in full possession of the puck by the generally accepted standard. Watching the game on TV in real time, I immediately thought it was an offside.

3. Was there an advantage gained? The intent of offside challenges, presumably, is to overturn egregious misses (such as Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final or Danny Briere's momentum-shifting goal in Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Basically, we're talking about plays that are detectable to the naked eye at full speed as being clearly offside.

Those slide-rule type of plays where someone is a hair offside or a skate is millimeter or two off the ice rather than on the blueline on a touch-up are not the presumable intent.

I believe the replay standard should involve some judgment: was the play offside by the Rule Book judgment and, in the judgement of the official, did the team materially gain an advantage by virtue of it. An example of this would be a pass caught by a player who either is offside or carries the puck in with teammates who are offside. The Coyle play falls into a bit of a gray area.

4. Was the challenge issued in timely fashion? I think there should be a time limit between the time a goal is scored and the time that a challenge can no longer be issued. If the coaches on the bench -- or the team's eye in the sky -- has to look at it multiple times, it's probably not clear cut enough to challenge. In this case, I think it took Montreal longer than should be allowed to challenge.

Yes, we all want the call to be correct. That is, after all, the prime directive. However, we are also in the entertainment business, and long delays for one team's bench to decide whether or not to challenge, followed by an even longer replay delay if there is a challenge, kills the flow of play. Waiting and waiting is like going to the dry cleaner and standing there while they clean and press your pants. Standing there with no pants is uncomfortable, so bring another pair of pants, drop off the dirty ones and MOVE ON!

In hockey, there is a Rule Book, but there is also a Case Book. The latter, which is kept internally, is designed to create standards for plays that fall into gray areas. I remember being part of many of these discussions when I refereed in the NHL where John McCauley or Bryan Lewis would read a Rule aloud and we'd debate the definition of terms such as "possession and control".

McCauley in particular was very good at posing gray area situations or situations that, while unusual, could plausibly pop up. We'd then go around and talk about it with real-life examples. How was the play ruled? Was that ruling within the letter and/or the spirit of the rule?

From these situations, there would be a "Case Book" developed; sort of like a hockey version of the ones in a court of law. In the case of offside plays, the Rule Book definition has remained constant for many, many years (unlike other rules) but there are also standards of how to call gray areas that won't be found within the Rule Book. Some contemporary Rule Books try to incorporate tables -- basically Case Book scenarios folded in as addendums -- to indicate accepted standards for what to call in specific cases.

I remember being in a meeting when the Instigator Rule first came into being. I think most readers know what my role was as a player. I didn't like the new rule, and instantly thought of a host of different scenarios where a team would rewarded unjustly. The rule was, and still is, tailor-made to being abused.

Go back and watch old videos of Matthew Barnaby or Sean Avery in action... or Brad Marchand nowadays, but there is very little fighting in today's game. They'd be the real instigator between chirping, the glove-drop fake or actions behind the play. I felt that, if we did have the instigator rule, there needed to be a Case Book of which situations merited an instigator penalty and which did not.

The other day on Facebook, I shared a video of Rick Tocchet delivering some instant justice to Wendel Clark for leaving his feet to hit Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe; a bit like instant pudding, except fistic. The real instigator here was Clark due to leaving his feet on the hit.

I know, I know. I'm a dinosaur.


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.

Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.
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