Unmasking the riddle of the goaltender interference rule

Ice hockey, sports

Inconsistency has been the theme in enforcing -and in some cases overlooking- the goaltender interference rule. With the factors affecting the result of the call being based on a referee’s opinion, the NHL should take a serious look at changing the goaltender interference rule in its entirety.

The league is taking action in modifying the rule, however this is a temporary solution for a rule that needs set protocol.

At the General Managers meeting on March 20th the frustrations surrounding the rule were addressed and, pending approval, it was proposed that the ruling on the ice would be placed in the hands of the situation room, as opposed to the referees. As expected on March 27th the league approved the modification to the goaltender interference rule.

In a Sportsnet article written by Mark Spector he notes, “the National Hockey League pushed through its change to how coaches’ challenges to goalie interference will be handled, taking the final call away from the on-ice officials.” Spector continues, “beginning Wednesday, the league will assign a former referee to be present in the Situation Room in Toronto during all games. With the addition of those former referees, the Situation Room will consult with the on-ice officials — but have taken over the right to make the final call on goalie interference.”


Photo Credit: Bleacher Report/ Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Modifying the goaltender interference rule by taking the final decision out of the referee’s hands is a step in the right direction, however, there is still a major problem with sending the call to the situation room: the final ruling is still subjective.

The problem begins within the core of the NHL Official Rule itself. Rule number 69 uses vague guidelines to try and accomplish a set rule for goaltender interference. The rule uses phrasing such as “in appropriate circumstances” and, “incidental contact.” These subjective descriptions leave room for interpretation and a misconstrued idea of the rule itself.

At the general managers meeting it was concluded that in the 2017-2018 season up to that point, 170 goals were reviewed for goaltender interference; 119 of the goals stood as called, yet the remaining 51 goals were overturned.

Despite reviewing the play from multiple angles, 70% of referees did not overturn their call. At the very least, this suggests the possibility that since the referee watched the goal occur live, he has a preconceived notion of the play and is more inclined to conclude that what he originally witnessed was what happened. In regards to the 30% of referees who overturned their call, there seems to be no underlying commonality which would motivate a consistent overturn.

In a Toronto Star article written by the Canadian Press, it notes that the league’s senior executive vice-president of hockey Colin Campbell admitted that, “a couple of controversial decisions made in the heat of the moment involving high-profile teams and players has forced the league to take a second look at the process.”

On January 22nd, 2018 Toronto Maple Leafs’ center Auston Matthews was left in disbelief when a goal he had scored was overturned due to a goaltender interference call. The explanation for the call being overturned was that Matthews’ had made contact with the goalie during the play. In the review, the minimal contact that was made occurred after the puck crossed the line.

Two days later, the Maple Leafs fell victim to the intermittent call again – this time on the other end of the ice – when Nick Schmaltz puts the puck past Maple Leaf’s goalie Frederik Andersen. Toronto head coach Mike Babcock challenged the goal with goaltender interference as Blackhawks forward Artem Anisimov fell on top of Andersen in the midst of the play. The goal was reviewed and goaltender interference was not called on the play: the call stood.

schmaltz/ andersen

(Photo Credit: The Toronto Star/ Chase Agnello-Dean / Getty Images)

The International Ice Hockey Federation rule 151 defines goaltender interference as, “a skater who uses any means to prevent a goaltender from playing his position.” The rule continues, outlining a physical boundary which would result in a goaltender interference penalty. “A skater who, by means of his stick or his body, interferes with or impedes the progress of a goaltender who is in his crease, or who prevents the goaltender from playing his position, will be assessed with a minor penalty.”

If a rule such as this was introduced into the NHL this would give a clear set of boundaries in the crease, with no room for interpretation.

What would it take for the NHL to change a rule?

The NHL is a league that holds its’ traditional values in high esteem. Changing a rule or regulation in the NHL comes with time, almost to the point of obligatory change. For example, despite the gruesome injuries endured over many years in a race for the puck to avoid an icing call, the NHL did not implement the hybrid-icing system until the 2013-14 season. For the NHL to change a rule based on frustration, the evidence in support of this would have to be undisputed.

And it is. The rate of goals overturned has increased rapidly over the past two seasons. In the 2015-2016 season, of the 144 goals that were challenged with goaltender interference, 117 were confirmed as goals and 27 were overturned. Compare that with the 2017-2018 season. Of the 170 goaltender interference challenges, 119 of the goals were confirmed yet 51 goals were overturned.

Although the number of goals that stood on the ice did not see a significant change, 24 more goals were overturned.

Based on the fact that this statistical trend motivated the NHL to re-examine the goaltender interference after only a few years, reaffirms the inconsistency of the call.

If there is one thing the referees’ have shown consistency in it is the unpredictable outcome of the ruling. It was on February 1st, 2018 that the rule transformed from an unpredictable inconvenience to an inexcusable obstacle.

The Vegas Golden Knights were taking on the Winnipeg Jets and the game was tied 1-1 nearing the end of the second period. Both teams were looking for a momentum change in order to take control of the game.

Golden Knights’ center Erik Haula scored a goal against the Jets giving the Golden Knights the advantage. However, during the play Golden Knights right winger James Neal slashed Connor Hellebuyck. The slash connected with his goalie mask with such force that his stick shattered on impact.

James Neal shatters stick over Connor Hellebuyck’s mask, but the goal stands.

(Photo Credit: Twitter/ @atf13atf)

Winnipeg’s head coach Paul Maurice challenged the play and in a surprisingly short discussion had between the referee’s it was concluded that there was no goaltender interference on the play. The goal stood. This goaltender interference call was not controversial because of the player’s displeasure, the coaches’ frustration, or the fans’ boos. None of that needed to be heard – the shattered stick that lay on the ice spoke for itself.

While modifying the goaltender interference rule is a step in the right direction, the discrepancies in the underlying premise of the call should result in the rule being rewritten completely. When the goaltender inference rule denotes a clear set of regulations without room for interpretation is when the riddle of the goaltender interference call will be solved once and for all.

Jennifer Redenbach, March 31st, 2018