The Hockey Rule Book Vs. The Human Rule Book


Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulstewart22

A huge part of the challenge of being a referee or linesman is that black-and-white decisions — goal or no goal, penalty or no penalty, icing or washout — have to be made in a split second. That’s probably why we wear zebra stripes.

In the meantime, the NHL rule book is filled with ambiguities and contradictions much like human behavior itself.

Let’s face it, hockey is a heartless game at times and it is very much part of the game to push the envelope of what’s legal without being so blatant about it that it clearly crosses the line.

If one was to officiate by the letter of the rule book, there would be dozens of penalties every game (and, no, players wouldn’t “eventually adjust”). Not every unpenalized stick check is going to be a clear cut legal check or blatant hook or slash that went uncalled. Not every penalized body check is going to be a clear cut boarding or charging.

Something else to consider: Part of the reason why I clashed frequently with many of my NHL officiating supervisors during my refereeing career is that I believe there is — or should be — a humanitarian element to the rulebook. As the late Frank Udvari told me, if something would have bothered you as a player, it should also bother you as a referee.

As an official, one has to act for the good of the game and according to the rule book. Sometimes that is a tough balance to strike. Do we really want to invite no-checking hockey or games with constant special teams play? At the other extreme, do we want to overlook cheap shots and blatant clutching and grabbing?

By the way, over-officiated games and under-officiated games end up being remarkably similar. Both usually end up becoming boring, sloppy games that, furthermore, actually increase amount of embellishment and cheap-shotting that goes on between the teams.

As a referee, a penalty need not always neatly fall under the description of one particular type of infraction. Sometimes there could be other penalties that apply and, furthermore, those penalties may carry more serious infractions.

As I noted last season, for example, had I refereed the Ray Emery beatdown of Braden Holtby, I’d have applied match penalty criteria instead of simply the less severe — but straight-by-the-book — penalties that were assessed under Rule 46.2 (the “Aggressor rule”).

In my opinion, Emery’s beatdown of Holtby went on for too long. It crossed the line into the territory where I would have imposed a match penalty for intent to injure on top of the aforementioned Rule 46.2 penalties. A match penalty carries an automatic review by the League, and would then have followed a different protocol that would have opened the door for a suspension.

Let me add here that the referees who worked that game didn’t do anything “wrong” by penalizing Emery according to Rule 46.2. They went straight by the book, and that’s their prerogative. The point I am making here is that referees have to perform a balancing act all the time between the hockey rule book and what their heart and gut tells them is the right thing to do.

Now, here’s something else. As a former player, when I saw the Emery-Holtby incident last season, I wondered why Washington forward Michael Latta — the closest Cap, and someone not directly involved in any of the other fights going on during the line brawl — did not come to his goalies assistance.

The referee warned Latta to stand back, and he did so. Now here’s something Latta probably didn’t know. Referees actually have some leeway when it comes to these situations. A third-man-in penalty and game misconduct (Rule 46.16) does NOT have to applied if there is a match penalty being assessed on the play — and, again, I personally would have given Emery a match penalty on top of the Aggressor penalty — OR if the third man in acts strictly as a peacemaker.

In other words, had Latta merely gone in and wrapped up Emery and wrestled him down to prevent him from throwing any further punches, he would not have to be ejected by the referees. Only at the point he would have started throwing punches of his own at Emery, he would become third man in with all the requisite penalties.

More to the point, third man in or not, Latta really should have helped his teammate. As a player, I would not have given a damn if I got a third man in. I was taught to defend your teammates (most especially your goalie and star players) at any cost if they were attacked.

As I wrote last year immediately after the incident, if Paul Stewart the player was on the ice and Paul Stewart the referee barked out the “stand back” command, the player would have ignored the warning and gone right after Emery to help out my teammate. Let the chips fall where they may, penalty wise. Back in the day, it was routine for teams to pay any fines resulting from fights on behalf of their players. They can’t do that anymore, not that it matters with today’s penny ante fines relative to the salaries today’s players make.

Lastly, there are times where an official has to put aside emotions in the name of making the right call. A good example of this is making a call on a routine but clear-cut minor penalty where one of the players accidentally sustains an injury in the immediate aftermath. This a situation where the humanitarian concern for the injured player has to be set aside and the two-minute penalty must to be called strictly by the book.

Here’s another, earlier example, from a game involving Philadelphia. Late during the 1996-97 season, I worked an afternoon game in Philadelphia between the Flyers and Ottawa Senators. In the opening seconds of play, I whistled off Philadelphia’s Mikael Renberg for pulling down Ottawa forward Randy Cunneyworth near the blueline.

It was a correct call and there was only one thing made it different from countless similar penalties: On the play, Renberg had been accidentally kicked in the face by Cunneyworth’s skate. As he fell to the ice in a heap, the Philadelphia player instinctively grabbed onto the opposing player. Renberg lost a lot of blood and had to be rushed to the hospital, where he received over 200 stitches to close a scalpel-like wound from his chin to his nostril.

When Renberg was taken off the ice and the pool of blood cleaned up, Flyers public address announcer Lou Nolan made the penalty call announcement. I heard it big time from the home crowd and got booed throughout the game. I hardly noticed and didn’t care about that aspect. It’s part of the turf of being a referee.

Here’s the thing: What Renberg did was a two-minute penalty. The grisly wound that Cunneyworth accidentally inflicted with his skate as Renberg lost his balance behind him was NOT a penalty. It was simply an accident. That didn’t mean I lacked concern for the injured player.

I was doing my job and I called a penalty, albeit under unfortunate circumstances. Once again, that is part of the job of being a referee. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to be an official is someone who has never tried to do this job. Sometimes even when you make the correct call, you’re going to catch flak.

So be it. In hockey, the rules of everyday human life may or may not apply. Sometimes there are just different standards applied.

If you approached someone in bank parking lot with a hockey stick and slashed the person in the leg with a piece of lumber in order to slow him or her down in order to get to the ATM first, you’d go to jail. In hockey, you sit for two minutes in the penalty box and gulp Gatorade.

************ 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, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.This post originally appeared on and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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