Have you ever attended a hockey game with someone who is fairly new to the sport? Like any sport, learning the rules and officials’ signals for the first time can be a bit of a process, and it’s important for hockey fans to support each other in doing so.
After all, knowing the rules can have a big impact on how enjoyable a game is to watch. Not only is it nice to understand what is happening and why, but discontent with officiating often stems from either a lack of knowledge or misperception of the rules.
We sat down with former District 5 Supervisor of Officials Mike Mooney to help clarify rules that are frequently misunderstood, even among the most experienced hockey fans, parents and coaches.
Officials’ Error on an Icing
Since we’re talking about bridging the gap between spectators and officials, it makes sense to start by admitting officials do make mistakes. Just like the players on the ice, most of the time they know they made a mistake, and no one likes to be pestered about them.
One example is when an official blows the whistle for icing but no icing actually took place.
“Many coaches and fans still argue that the face-off should take place at center ice. That was the rule, but it gave an unfair territorial advantage to one team,” said Mooney. “USA Hockey saw this was unfair to the team that didn’t ice the puck so USA Hockey changed the rule. Unless there are different rules that would come into play, the face-off will take place at the closest end zone face-off location to where play was stopped.” Rule 624 (c)
Play to the Whistle?
“We often hear people yelling to play to the whistle,” said Mooney. “In certain circumstances, if a player does play to the whistle, he should be penalized.”
A common example is when a goaltender freezes the puck. According to USA Hockey rules, any player who makes stick contact with an opposing goalie who has caught or covered the puck should receive a minor penalty for slashing, regardless of whether or the whistle has blown yet. Rule 634 (e)
Premature Goalie Substitution
Many times, towards the end of a close game or when a delayed penalty is being signaled, a goalie will leave the ice for a substitute skater. On occasion, the skater will enter the ice surface before the goalie has reached the bench. The official will blow the whistle for a stoppage of play if the offending team is in possession and control of the puck, for a premature goaltender substitution.
“We often hear people questioning why this isn’t a bench minor penalty for too many players on the ice. The difference is in the rule itself,” said Mooney. “The stoppage for a premature goaltender substitution is to assure the team putting an extra skater on the ice does not receive an unfair advantage, but there is no penalty.”
“As officials, many times we hear fans and coaches voice their opinion on an offside play being an intentional offside,” said Mooney. “The thing the official is looking at is if the player creating the offside did so with the intent to stop play or if they were trying to complete a legal play and the timing was off.”
Offside calls can be some of the most confusing due to all of the variables involved. In fact, the USA Hockey casebook shares 41 different situations to help officials understand all of the nuances.
High Sticking Penalty & Height
The initial key to understanding high sticking calls is knowing there are actually two separate applications. The first type of high sticking is when a player hits another player with their stick above the shoulders, such as when a player misses a stick check and their stick comes up to hit the opponent in the chin or face mask. This type of high sticking is a penalty. The second type of high stick violation is if the puck is played above the normal height of the player’s shoulder, which results in a stoppage of play and a face-off.
“In USA Hockey, a high stick violation is judged by the normal height of the player’s shoulder,” said Mooney. “This is due to the discrepancy of height from Squirts/10U up to adults. Other sanctioning bodies, such as high school, college, junior or the NHL, the stick height threshold is four feet [or the crossbar].” Rule 621
Close Calls Count
Speaking of stick penalties, did you know contact does not need to be made with an opponent for a penalty to be assessed? Actions such as high sticking, slashing, spearing and butt ending can all be called for penalties without the player actually making contact with the opponent.
Every player is responsible for their stick and using it in a way that endangers others warrants a penalty, even if they miss or use it to threaten. Rule 634
Deflected vs. Directed
There are some rules that only seem to surface at the most controversial times, and the intricacies of what qualifies as a good goal when the puck goes into the net off something other than a stick is one of those rules.
“The action the on-ice official is looking for is, was the puck deflected or directed by something other than a stick,” said Mooney. “If the puck is legally shot then deflected off a skate or any part of a player the goal will count. If the puck is directed by a skate or by an attacking player, the goal will be disallowed." Rule 617
Freezing the Puck along the Boards
Have you ever noticed when there’s a log jam along the boards that officials are yelling to “Move it!” rather than blowing the whistle? If so, that means you have an official who knows the rules well!
The only time play should be stopped is when a player accidentally falls or is knocked down on the puck during the board battle, or if the referee feels there is about to be unnecessary contact. Otherwise, officials are instructed to tell the players to move the puck and have the authority to assess a delay of game penalty if a player refuses to move the puck and continues to hold it along the boards. Rule 610 | Rule 632
A Hand Pass
Most fans understand the basic concept of a hand pass violation in hockey. You’re supposed to play the game with your stick so it makes sense you’re not allowed to use your hand. The details can be a little complicated though.
For instance, players are allowed to move the puck with their hand when in their defensive zone, but if you close your hand on the puck anywhere on the ice, it results in a whistle. In addition, any player that picks up the puck off the ice with their hand is subject to a minor penalty, but any skater that covers, moves or picks up the puck in their defending crease shall be assessed a penalty shot. Rule 618
Lastly and hopefully the least necessary, we wanted to touch on fan ejections, mainly because of the seriousness of those situations. No official wants to experience a situation where they need to remove a spectator or coach, but they do have the authority to do so. If a spectator must be removed during a game, the officials will identify violators to the coaches for the purpose of removing the parents/spectators from the arena. Play should not resume until the individual has vacated the building, and lost time will not be replaced. Furthermore, according to Minnesota Hockey rules, any spectator removed from a game for poor conduct is subject to a three-game suspension.