Sports leagues love to steal ideas from each other, so apparently the NHL decided to copy the NFL’s ongoing controversy over what defines a catch by asking everyone in hockey, “What is goaltender inference?” Over the past few weeks, the answer has been made clear: Nobody knows for sure.
A pair of questionable calls Thursday night during the Bruins-Blues and Golden Knights-Jets games only underscored that this is a growing issue in need of addressing as soon as possible. Winnipeg players didn’t mince their words about the non-call after Connor Hellebuyck was hit in the head by James Neal right before a Vegas goal:
James Neal should have gotten a forty minute penalty for this and yet it stood as a good goal pic.twitter.com/oGEfWMMrgs— Winnipeg has no airport (@atf13atf) February 2, 2018
“I think it’s a terrible call. You would think the video replay is there for that reason. I don’t even think their team wanted that goal; obviously they’re going to take it. That’s just dirty,” said Hellebuyck. “I can take a stick to the face. But just because I don’t throw my head back and make it obvious, I feel like I got kind of screwed on this. Maybe I should start diving a little bit; that’s just ridiculous.”
Forward Blake Wheeler was even more upset: “Come on, (he) f——g breaks a stick over his head. That’s not a goal. I don’t care where the puck is,” said Wheeler.
There was another controversial goal by David Krejci in the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the Blues. St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong could hardly complain afterward because there’s little basis upon which to complain now.
“I wasn’t shocked because I don’t know what the rules are,” he told The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford. “Whether you agree with the rules, it’s really irrelevant, but you have to understand them. It’s certainly grayer now than it’s ever been before.”
According to a report from Sportsnet, NHL referees are making a goalie interference call at least once every seven games. That’s pretty much once a night when you consider how many games are played.
At this point, it should be a top priority for league executives at their upcoming meeting in the spring, as TSN’s Darren Dreger said Thursday night:
Based on tonight alone, it's safe to say goalie interference is going to be a top agenda item for NHL GM's at the March meetings. No choice.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) February 2, 2018
Here are a bunch of other recent examples.
- The Oilers nearly lost a game on Jan. 26 because of a goalie interference call that left Connor McDavid so upset he later got an Abuse of Officials penalty. “I have thoughts but I’m probably best to keep them to myself,” coach Todd McLellan said after the game. “I’ll let that speak for what my thoughts are.”
- A goal by the Wild’s Jonas Brodin is called off for goalie interference on Jan. 25 because Mikko Koivu lightly stick-checks the goaltender. The video on YouTube has more dislikes than likes, which shows how fans feel about this stuff.
- The Lightning needed a comeback win after a failed goalie interference call on Jan. 24. “Right when I think I got this (rule) finally figured out,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “The player comes, knocks our goalie, spins him around, clearly before the puck is even in the net. I look at it this way. I thought it was 100 percent goalie interference and I guarantee, on their bench, they’re sitting there thinking, ‘Oh this could go 50/50.’”
- Auston Matthews was robbed of what appeared to be a good goal against the Avalanche on Jan. 22. Next time he scored, he signaled the goal himself to show referees this one couldn’t be taken away.
- Referees take nearly six minutes on Jan. 13 to figure out whether Blake Comeau’s collision with Ben Bishop counts as interference. They ultimately decide it is goaltender inference and take away the goal.
- The Maple Leafs try to challenge for goaltender interference when Artem Anisimov falls over the netminder during a wild sequence on Jan. 24, but the referees determine it’s a good goal.
All of these moments occurred in the past three weeks alone. There have been dozens of others throughout the 2017-18 season, some of which are obvious but the vast majority of which are not.
And that’s the crux of the real issue for the NHL: Nobody seems to be able to properly define and enforce goalie interference based on the current rulebook. There’s minimal consistency from game to game, so what constitutes an interference violation in Anaheim might be a good goal in Boston. And it feels like there’s little rhyme or reason as to why that happens.
As you can see, this is increasingly becoming a point of frustration for players and coaches, who seem at a loss to figure out why calls go for or against them at times. The standings are so close together that each of these close reviews can have significant importance. Some team might look back in April and wonder whether its season would’ve been different if the league handled reviews differently.
There’s also the risk of a situation like this occurring in a crucial Game 7, which would give the NHL flashbacks to Brett Hull’s foot in the crease in 1999.
This is a massive problem for the NHL, and it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Commissioner Gary Bettman already spoke to the problems last month before the All-Star Game, and the league recently sent out a memo to referees giving more information on how to handle these reviews. However, it’s done little to fix a situation that comes up almost every day.
There is no obvious solution, either. Adopting the IIHF’s goaltender interference standard, which says, “If an attacking skater establishes position in the goal crease, play will be stopped and the ensuing faceoff will take place at the nearest faceoff spot in the neutral zone,” could be one solution as suggested by Sportsnet.
That would eliminate a lot of the tricky interference calls by outright banning players from taking that position in the goal crease, although it could potentially give referees new headaches.
There’s probably not going to be a magic fix here, but it’s apparent that the status quo isn’t working. The NHL needs to find some way to address how goaltender interference is defined and enforced, because this is becoming one of the most important stories of the year.