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A penalty is a penalty is a penalty - not!
2021-03-28

A penalty is a penalty is a penalty.

If only it were that simple.

In light of the Tim Peel incident, I have now had to endure seemingly endless diatribes championing the notion that all that ails NHL hockey can be resolved with a simple wave of the wand: just ask referees to call the rulebook, as it is written.

Folks mounting this soapbox do so, apparently oblivious to the fact that by offering the notion, just paragraphs later, that players and coaches really just want the “standard” to remain the same, that they are dismantling the very argument that is fundamental to their initial assertion.

They speak freely of the concept of a “soft penalty” call, unaware that the term itself flies directly in the face of their proclamations that infractions are not subject to any degree of nuance, whatsoever.

To be clear, hockey penalties are not mathematical formulas. An answer of anything other than two to the question of “what is one plus one?” would be deemed incorrect - plain and simple.

Hockey rules, by their very nature, are not nearly this cut and dry. To some extent, they operate on a spectrum, one in which context and perspective is critical. The simple truth is that a great many penalties are indeed judgement calls.

Still doubting my argument? Let’s scamper down this rabbit hole, just a little more, though I acknowledge that 1000 to 1200 words likely does not do justice to the debate in which I am about to engage.

For the sake of my column, I will use the slashing penalty. To be clear, I could have selected any one of the 15 or so most common calls that are made and they all would have served my purpose.

The NHL rulebook (page 92 - rule 61, to be precise) devotes three sentences to the definition of slashing. In the interest of brevity, I will focus on the first two:

“Slashing is the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not. Non-aggressive stick contact to the pant or front of the shin pads, should not be penalized as slashing.”

The mere insertion of the idea of “non-aggressive stick contact” should strike fear in the heart of the “Call the Rules” brigade.

They, however, will point to the definition and suggest I would have to be an idiot not to understand the difference between a stick chop of which Paul Bunyan would be proud, and a mere tap to the shins, as if these “end of the spectrum” examples were the only times in which stick contact is ever made with an opponent.

To me, the question seems simple enough: if you believe the rulebook is so easily interpreted, please explain to me EXACTLY the point at which the swing of a stick crosses that threshold from non-aggressive to aggressive?

Let's explore that question. Just to keep things simple, let’s assume we define the degree of aggressiveness by the speed at which the stick is travelling at the time it makes contact with an opponent (yes, I understand that's not the only factor in play, but I am really trying to avoid this column stretching out to 5000 words or more!).

While 100 MPH constitutes a clear cut penalty call and 20 MPH indicates what should always, 100% of the time, be construed as a non-call, what to make of the difference between slashes delivered at 51 MPH and 52 MPH? Is it even realistic to expect that this difference is discernible to the eye of an official?

I have long maintained that when it comes to officiating, the end goal should fall in line with the following: assume I could prepare a series of 20 separate videos of slashes delivered to an opponent, going from what is clearly non-aggressive all the way to borderline major penalty material. If I show these clips to ten very high caliber officials, I would expect that all ten would agree on the 33% of videos at each end of the spectrum.

(* I am arbitrarily using 33% as my extremes - even if this is 40% or more, the fact is that we are going to eventually reach the in-between section that I am now about to address)

It’s in that middle third or so that things become really interesting.

The truth is that at some point, you will end up with roughly a 50/50 split of officials that would either make that call or not make that call based on viewing exactly the same clip. This absolutely has to be the case, simply because there is, in reality, almost no obvious difference between a slash at 51MPH or 52MPH (feel free to change those numbers as you wish - but remember that the idea of an aggressive vs non-aggressive distinction means that there must, at some point, be a magical line that is crossed).

The same holds true if I conducted this test with 20 OHL coaches, or 32 NHL general managers - or, for that matter, with a collection of 20 or so hockey scribes, a whole bunch of whom seem to suggest that the rule book is nothing if not black and white.

It is precisely in this grey zone that I will suggest the concept of game management resides - in my opinion.

The truth of the matter is that it’s impossible to ask officials to not be aware of the fact that they have called seven consecutive infractions against the same team, or that they are dealing with a 1-1 game with only five minutes to play, or that they are looking at a slash that occurs 100 feet behind the play versus one that clearly might impact a scoring chance.

All of which is not to suggest that the extremes, the obvious calls or non-calls, should fall victim to any of the above.

Penalties can and should still be called in overtime of game seven of the Stanley Cup finals. But if a 51MPH slash was the standard in a 7-1 early season game, an infraction that was signalled simply to dial down the intensity of the moment, then perhaps it’s a 56MPH slash that is called in said Cup final.

Those who do not understand the game will suggest this statement is sacrilegious - to which I invite them to sit down with me and try and distinguish, on video, in real time, the difference between the 51MPH and 56MPH slash. And don’t forget - as an official, you have exactly a fraction of a second to make this assessment.

No rewinding the tape to take a look at the slash over and over again in fine detail. Heck, I am not even going to insert the idea that the view from which the referee sees the game is different from that of a coach on a bench, or a writer in the pressbox. Nor am I going to throw in the notion that these officials are human and will make mistakes, sometimes even realizing a mere second after their hand has been raised that the infraction was not worthy of a call.

Let's set all of that side and decide what exactly we are to make of all of this.

Let me offer the following: it certainly should be the goal of all of hockey to try and expand the scope of the two extremes of the spectrum, as outlined above, and try and really narrow down those calls that could go either way. As much as possible, we want the same call being made in the same scenario, every single time.

Likewise, it is fair for fans and media alike to ask that those calls or non-calls (the extremes, as it were) should be handled exactly the same manner, regardless of the score, regardless of the time of game, regardless of the zone of the infraction.

But to suggest that the solution to all of the above is as simple as just asking these men in stripes to please grab the rulebook out of their duffel bag and take a moment to read it, because then everything becomes crystal clear, is absolute silliness.

To think that there does not exist a grey area when it comes to penalty calls, that there is a point at which the on-ice official, in a fraction of a second, does not waver between making or not making the call, is extremely naive.

All those who would argue this statement are welcomed to assemble, once the pandemic lifts, at a single venue, each in their own individual and separate room, all viewing the same exact clips, and then come to the conclusion of penalty or non-penalty. Once 100% consensus is achieved, across the board, that each and every one of you agree on every single call or non call, only then will I concede that the rulebook is as clearly and neatly and easily interpreted as those who currently make that argument seem to believe.

Though I did not address it, the belief that all of the above (my entire argument) crumbles if officials are instructed to call every single infraction (I am assuming you achieve this by eliminating the aggressive versus non-aggressive distinction and simplify the rule to any contact of a player’s stick on an opponent) is quickly countered by the understanding that no one in hockey wishes to see a game in which hundreds of penalty calls are made - because that is how often slashing, interference, roughing, et al occur if one removes the concept of a degree of severity that is needed to reach the threshold of what constitutes a penalty.

Don't believe me? Here is the definition of roughing in the NHL rulebook: Roughing is a punching or slamming motion with or without the glove on the hand, normally directed at the head or face of an opponent, or if a player intentionally removes an opponent’s helmet during play pursuant to Rule 9.6.

The very first NHL referee who "simply calls the rulebook", based on the definition of roughing above, will be turfed out on his rear-end, because by that definition, roughing only happens about a hundred times a game or so - basically, at every front of the crease gathering after a whistle.

Just call the rulebook, you say? If only life were that easy.

Northern Ontario AAA Hockey League