By Kevin Robertson – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student
Few in the game of hockey are more loathed than Sean Avery. However, it is not for his devastating skill but instead for his tendency to push the grey area of the rules a tad to far. One such incident occurred in April 2008 during a playoff game between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers. Avery, playing for the Rangers, occupied his usual spot in front of the opposing goalie but then he did something unheard of in his attempt to block the goalies view, he turned around.
Having a (usually large) player stand in front of the goalie in an attempt to block their view is a standard procedure. However, it has always been done with the players back to the goalie (face to the puck). The benefit of this is that the player can watch for the puck and potentially deflect it into the goal. In fact, the move is so common it even has a name: screening the goalie.
Most goalies attempt to overcome the body in their way by either looking over the players shoulder or to the side of the body. This has always worked because the player has to split attention between the puck and the location of the goalie. When Avery turned his body to face the goalie (in this case Martin Brodeur) he completely disregarded the puck and instead focused solely on obstructing the goalies view. Now Avery did not simply stand there and let his body block the view of the goalie, instead he waived his hands in front of the goalies head.
While Avery did not break any sort of established rule many players complained that it should not be allowed. Montreal Canadians goalie Carey Price even went so far as to state that “it’s almost an unwritten rule.”
What is most shocking is the speed by which the NHL had reinterpreted an existing rule to prevent the type of play from happening again; it was ready to go the day after the game. Colin Campbell, the NHL director of hockey operations clarified the rule saying that:
“An unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty will be interpreted and applied, effective immediately, to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play,”
The most interesting aspect was not that the NHL desired to end this type of conduct (this view was widely supported throughout the league), it was the speed and monopolistic manner with which they reinterpreted a rule to cover a situation that was not contemplated in the first place.
Nowhere in Rule 75 of the NHL’s official rules (which outline unsportsmanlike penalties) does it forbid “improperly interfering” or “distracting the goaltender” (wouldn’t a team encourage this?). The only way that the rule change could be situated as any sort of “reinterpretation” would be if one considered Avery’s conduct to be “disorderly” (which would place it in violation of Rule 75.1). In effect, the NHL used a catch-all provision regarding disorderly conduct on the ice to ban this type of maneuver.
Whatever a person’s opinion is regarding the rule itself, it is disconcerting how the NHL was able to essentially impose a new rule on the game in such a short time period without consulting with NHL Players Association. Such a short turnaround can only occur in a situation where the governing body has complete and utter authority to act in a monopolistic manner.
To put this in perspective, typically a rule change would be a 3-step process consisting of General Managers recommending a rule change, the Competition Committee (half players and half club officials) which ordinarily meets twice a year to analyze the proposed changes, and the Board of Governors who then votes on it. Historically rules changes have also been tested in either other leagues or pre-season games before they are ratified.
Only after all steps are complete does a supported rule change become active.
There was no reason, such as immediate player safety, to circumvent the established rule change process. It appears that the NHL wished to save face by outlawing the screening of a goalie’s face à la Sean Avery. The NHL has shown that they can effectively alter the rules on the fly by disregarding the established process. It is surprising that the NHLPA did not publicly decry the procedure through which the rule change was instigated. It is hoped that future instances of rule changes made in response to an unforeseen development on the ice will conform to the collective agreement and due process.