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Rules Primer: Why Goalie Interference Has To Be So Freaking Complicated

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This is goalie interference.
This is goalie interference.

God bless the NHL television crews. They try so hard but often just don't know what they're talking about when it comes to the rules.

This is especially true with goalie interference, one of the most nuanced rules in the book at the NHL level and often one of the most debated by those involved in the incidents.

With three GI calls in last night's game, one that nullified a goal and two that resulted in penalties, it gives us a great chance to talk about what, exactly, is illegal and why some players (and announcers) just can't seem to figure it out.

The short version is this - players are never allowed to intentionally make contact with the goaltender, and "intentional" also includes actively failing to avoid contact even when pushed by a defender. Additionally, goalies have the rights to all areas of their crease, and an offensive player who takes himself into the blue paint risks nullifying any goal that occurs with him in there.

After the jump, all the ins and outs you ever wanted to know about goalie interference and how all three examples from last night's game were actually properly called, if possibly influenced by a player's reputation.

First, the rule straight from the NHL rulebook, though I warn you it's a long one.

69.1 Interference on the Goalkeeper - This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player’s position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. The rule will be enforced exclusively in accordance with the on-ice judgment of the Referee(s), and not by means of video replay or review.

Got that? Not really? It's the first of five long paragraphs describing the rule, and none of it is really that clear. Personally, I am much more fond of this handy little chart from the rulebook appendix that lays out most situations and declares whether it is a penalty, a waive off, or a big old nothing.

But to put it in laymen's terms, there are two versions of GI - penalty and non-penalty.

Let's start with the non-penalty version. If an attacking player, by virtue of his positioning, prevents a goalie from being able to move freely within his crease to make a potential save, then he is violating the non-penalty portion of the GI rule that simply results in any potential goal being waived off. The important thing to remember here is it's the goalie's position and actions, not the forward's, that matters. An attacking player can be in the crease and not violating the rule if the goalie makes no move toward that area, but as soon as the goalie tries to push that direction, he is obligated to move or be in violation of the rule. But if the goalie makes no move toward the area, he is okay.

The reason this is so complicated is the league decided (in *ahem* 1999) they simply couldn't make the crease a no-go zone. It led to far too many legitimate goals being nullified. The first change to the rule occurred that spring, when a league-wide memo was sent out in March saying a player was allowed to be in the crease if he had possession of the puck (and for what it's worth, rebounds have never counted as a change of possession). After the playoffs, the crease-violation rule was scrapped entirely, but the league still wanted goalies to have the maximum ability to make the save if they were in the blue paint. Now, the attacker simply risks "bad things happening" by being in the crease (and yes, that phrase is actually in the rulebook) but is not punished if his presence has no effect on the play.

A penalty for GI is supposed to be applied whenever an opposing player makes intentional, reckless or "other than incidental" contact with the goalie or if the player is "hindering the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely in his goal crease." In practice, the latter is almost never called. Almost all referees require some degree of intent or recklessness to call a penalty. A player who cuts through the crease and gives the goalie a minor bump on the way through is very unlikely to be called. In fact, that very situation is spelled out as a non-penalty in that appendix linked above.

One of the biggest areas of confusion is the "out clause," where attacking players are given leeway if forced into the goalie by a defender. The biggest misconception is that is a hard and fast exception to the rule. In reality, an attacking player must make all possible efforts to avoid contacting the goalie even if he is hit by a defender. If, in the judgement of the referee, he tried his best but couldn't avoid the contact, then he's good, but many guys get nailed (and Steve Ott, I'm looking directly at you) because the referees think they could have tried harder to bail out to the side and not into the goalie.

A final note - all those rules, save deliberate, recklessly dangerous or "other than incidental" contact with the goalie, go out the window in a rebound or loose puck in the crease scenario. If the puck is loose around a goalie's feet in the crease, incidental contact in the crease, using the body to prevent the goalie from getting to the puck and other crowding situations are perfectly legal so long as the attacking player is trying to get to the puck.

Now, how was that all shown in last night's game? Let's start with the first incident from last night's game, the disallowed Columbus Blue Jackets goal at 15:11.

Referee Brian Pochmara immediately waived off the goal because about two seconds before it was scored, Jackets forward Derek Dorsett established position within the crease and bumped Kari Lehtonen. Although the two were not in contact when the goal went in the net, Dorsett was still in the crease and preventing Lehtonen from getting out to challenge the shooter. This violates two parts of the non-penalty portion of the GI rule and is a perfect example of a goal that should be waived off with no penalty applied.

The bump also played a large role because referees will consider whether the goal was scored in the immediate aftermath of illegal contact even if such contact is no longer in effect. If the referee thinks the bump threw the goalie off enough to prevent a reasonable opportunity at a save, then the goal will be waived off.

Later in the period, Mr. Ott tried to cut between a Blue Jackets defender and Steve Mason and had his stick (and arms) lifted in the process. Ott's stick and gloves then grazed Mason in the head, and there was some mild body contact.

Now first of all, this is high sticking, and contrary to what some announcers say, there is no relief for having your stick lifted. But also, my suspicion is the referee thought Ott could have rolled his body to the side and not backed into Mason. This is somewhat a reputation call, but Ott's is earned through his years of line walking, and he's not going to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the question "Could he have avoided contact with the goalie if he tried a little harder?" If he'd thrown his body to the side, he may have gotten the benefit of the doubt and might have even drawn an interference or hooking minor on the defenseman, but that's not in Ott's nature. The best answer for him would be to cut in front of the defenseman rather than behind him. By cutting across the top of the crease, Ott risked "bad things happening."

The third GI call, against Blue Jackets youngster Ryan Johansen, was probably the clearest of the three. While he was bringing the puck to the net, he made no attempt at all to stop before bowling into Kari Lehtonen, and neither Sheldon Souray's presence at his back or the puck being held under Lehtonen's pads was going to negate that.

While there was certainly some contact from behind, Johansen's path was already taking him directly into Lehtonen, who was firmly in the crease, and that will be called GI 99 times out of 100. While this contact likely wouldn't be deemed intentional, it was also well more than incidental. Again, the solution is to either make a much more concerted effort to stop before reaching the crease or to choose a path that does not end up at the blue paint.

I hope that clears up some of the ins and outs of goalie interference. As always, different referees have different thresholds of incidental and some are much more protective of the goalies than others, so there will be some variation from game to game. And occasionally (especially around the start of the playoffs) there is a league-wide memo which leads to a whole spate of calls of the less-obvious variety.

Any questions about GI or any other rules interpretation? Feel free to ask them in the comments, and I'll do the best I can.