Before we start this primer on the rule changes from the offseason, I have a confession.
Hi, my name is Erin, and I'm a rules nerd.
Yes, I'm a student of one of the geekiest aspects of the game - rules and, more importantly, their NHL-sanctioned interpretations, and the referees. I can tell you who the best skating referee is (most would probably vote Kelly Sutherland), which refs are the most authoritarian (Don Van Massenhoven, I'm looking at you). Heck, give me enough games, and I can probably tell you when the league sends a memo out reminding refs of particular calls to look for.
I have a problem. Please help.
But because I am such a rules nerd, I've paid a lot of attention to the changes that happen every summer, and there were a pair of big-time changes to safety calls, and the corresponding uptick in post-game suspensions, this summer that have already had an impact on the Dallas Stars and throughout the NHL.
After the jump, the exact changes to the boarding and illegal check to the head rules, what the previous interpretations were and what they are now and how previous disciplinary action against a known troublemaker like Steve Ott might have much longer repercussions than we realized.
To understand how the boarding and illegal check to the head (known as rule 48 from here on in) penalties have changed, you have to know where we started. I'm going to start with boarding because it's more straightforward.
The rulebook definition of boarding used to be a check that sent a player violently into the boards with a caveat that a player who deliberately put himself in a vulnerable position could negate the potential call. That was the letter of the law. The standard you almost always saw applied involved something I like to call the "no-no" zone and a player who got launched off of his feet after a collision or hit.
In general, the most dangerous area to get hit around the boards is an area about 2-6 feet away from them, the "no-no zone." That's because when a player is hit in this area, there is enough room for him to go into the boards very awkwardly, potentially shoulder or neck first, whereas if he were closer or farther away from the boards, he'd splat into them standing straight up or be on his butt and a little more in control of his body well before he slid into them.
If there was a collision in this 2-6 foot zone and the player who was on the receiving end of the hit was knocked off of his feet and awkwardly into the boards (what rules nerds call launching), referees were likely to call boarding no matter how hard the hit actually was. This caused a fair number of unfortunate situations where the hit was not particularly violent in and of itself but the player receiving the hit was off balance, but the league decided a long time ago that if a player with the puck was in a vulnerable position around the boards, the onus was on the hitter to deliver a check that wouldn't potentially break his neck.
Like many of the other violent fouls, boarding tends to get an automatic upgrade if there is an injury associated with the penalty. The default is a two-minute minor, then it can be five minutes depending on the degree of violence with a 10-minute misconduct associated with the major in the case of an injury to the head or neck.
So that's where we came from. The changes this summer were designed more to clarify the rule than to change how it is implemented. First of all, the rule was changed to talk about a defenseless player rather than a vulnerable one. And second, and far more important, the word "push" was added so that a player who "checks or pushes" a defenseless player who then goes violently into the boards has technically committed boarding. This simply clarifies that boarding is a penalty of the result rather than a penalty of the action. That push is where you've seen most of the uptick in calls during the preseason since referees are no longer as concerned about making sure the initial contact was a full check, and it's why you've heard reference to some of the Stars more enthusiastic hitters, such as Steve Ott in the game against the Colorado Avalanche, passing on the opportunity to cream guys into the boards.
The league also clarified that if a checker makes an attempt to pull up and minimize the dangerous contact once he sees the puck carrier is in a defenseless position, there should not be a penalty called. This doesn't mean just setting the feet and gliding into the hit but legitimately trying to slow down before the contact.
Here is video the league sent out to the players clarifying the boarding rule.
Now onto the much more controversial rule change, illegal check to the head.
Rule 48 used to say something like hits that targeted or had a primary point of contact with the head that came from a player's lateral or blindside were illegal. This became a big point of contention last season when the league couldn't decide how far lateral was lateral or what happened when a player was moving one direction but his head was turned. There were confusing mentions of "east-west" and "north-south" hits in a video that was supposed to make the rule clear, and then-disciplinary czar Colin Campbbell blatantly ignored his own rule definition by suspending Tom Kostopoulos for his hit on Brad Stuart when it didn't violate the existing rule 48 (though you could make a very good argument for a charge or interference).
But that suspension led directly to the wording change this offseason. Lateral and blindside are no longer in play with rule 48. Instead, all deliberate or reckless hits where the head is primary point of contact is the head are now outlawed.
This has caused all sorts of problems in the preseason as players continue to try to put their shoulder into another player's chin. No matter where you come from on the ice in relation to the player you want to hit, you must try to avoid hitting him in the head, and some guys just aren't doing that yet.
There is a very large caveat though, one that also exists in the boarding rule. If a player that you have lined up moves into a vulnerable position immediately before or simultaneously with the hit being delivered, then that will exonerate most dangerous hits. Now, if you clearly had your elbow stuck out to nail a guy in the nose, he moves and you get him in the back of the head, you're still going to be at fault. But if you have your shoulder lined up with his chest and he suddenly lunges forward, as Brendan Shanahan ruled was the case in the Chris Campoli-Ryan Malone hit from the other night, then the hitter has not violated rule 48 even if contact with the head occurs.
In general, the standard for "immediately before" in the NHL is in the range of a half second, which is the grace period for interference once the puck is released, though Shanahan has yet to clarify exactly how much grace period a hitter will get. This is something we'll have to watch for as the season goes on.
The other, smaller caveat is that hits where there is contact with the head but the primary point of contact was the body, which usually happens on a follow through or on incidental contact from the upper part of the shoulder cap while most of the shoulder is going into the chest, are not rule 48 violations.
This hasn't been a part of any controversial decisions yet, but I'm sure it will come into play at some point in the season.
Here's the video the league sent out on the new interpertation of rule 48.
Finally, a quick bit about suspensions. For some time now, we've been working under the impression that a player's disciplinary history resets 18 months after his most recent suspension, which is important because being a repeat offender can get a player a significantly longer suspension.
And while the hit to the player's wallet does go way down after the 18 month limit, Shanahan told Puck Daddy recently that he will consider a player's entire suspension history when making a decision, particularly when a player has a history of violent infractions. There are a few Stars who have history of suspensions for violent infractions, most notably Ott (for charging, clipping and eye gouging) and Stephane Robidas (automatic 1-game for two boarding majors over a set period of time).
That concludes my rules nerding for today. If you've got any questions about the rule changes, or really anything about NHL rules or refereeing, comment away.