In addition to being the year of the upset, the year of the hot goaltender, and the year of complaining incessantly about suspension decisions, the 2012 NHL playoffs are quickly becoming the year of the “puck over the glass” penalty. The call has come up so often in this year’s playoffs that Canadian sports network TSN has started keeping track of it on a big board. They’ve already counted more than 20.
I have my own big board, and it keeps track of how many times the penalty should have been called: zero. That’s because the puck-over-glass rule is the single dumbest rule in hockey, and maybe in all of sports.
The background: Coming out of the 2005 lockout, the NHL introduced several new rules in an attempt to increase offense and speed up the game. Among them was an addition to Rule 63.2’s definition of delay of game, which made it an automatic minor penalty for a player in his own zone to shoot the puck over the glass and out of play.
The puck-over-glass rule was the perfect solution to the problem of players intentionally shooting the puck into the stands to delay the game, which would have been great except for one small detail — that problem never existed. On the list of things that hockey fans worried about pre-lockout, players intentionally shooting the puck into the stands as a strategic move ranked slightly behind thinking that alternate jersey designs weren’t ugly enough.
The rule has all sorts of built-in exceptions. If the puck touches the glass on the way out, it’s not a penalty. If it goes over the bench area (where the glass is lower) it’s not a penalty. If it deflects off another player, it’s not a penalty.
Those are all smart exceptions to make, because those sorts of scenarios would clearly be the result of bad luck instead of actual intent, and penalizing bad luck isn’t fair. But because intentionally shooting the puck into the stands almost never happened in the first place, virtually every call under the new rule is the result of bad luck. Any time the penalty is called these days, fans watch the replay and mumble “Yeah, he clearly didn’t mean to do that.”
And that’s what makes the rule so dumb. It solves a problem that didn’t exist by punishing players for something they didn’t mean to do. It’s practically random.
And it’s becoming infuriatingly common. You could argue that something like the trapezoid rule is also dumb, or at least needlessly complicated, but it’s a harmless kind of dumb because it’s almost never called. The puck-over-glass rule comes into play all the time.
Even worse, the nature of the penalty makes it more likely to be called against a team that’s already killing a penalty. (Because icing is allowed when short-handed, defenders are essentially always trying to shoot the puck out of the zone at the first opportunity.) So it’s not just a dumb random penalty that makes a team short-handed; often, it’s a dumb random penalty that puts a team down 5-on-3. And as hockey fans know, an extended 5-on-3 is as close as the sport ever comes to awarding an automatic goal.
Which, a cynic might suggest, could be the whole point. The NHL wants more offense, but they can’t seem to figure out how to accomplish that at even strength. So why not add a nonsensical penalty that seems to have been specifically designed to create more power-play goals? Scoring goes up a little, everyone high-fives, and if we’re lucky nobody will mention that the rule is completely arbitrary and unfair.
Like most dumb problems, the solution for this one is easy: Treat any puck shot into the stands the same as icing — which, it should be pointed out, usually involves shooting the puck out of your own zone to relieve the pressure and is therefore essentially the exact same thing. You have a faceoff in the defensive zone, the defending team doesn’t get to change lines, and off we go. No worrying about whether the puck clipped the glass, no trying to triangulate whether it might have crossed into neutral airspace over the bench, and no trying to explain to new fans why shooting the puck over there is treated differently from shooting it over there.
And if you’re really worried about an outbreak of players shooting pucks into the stands (which, again, has never been a significant issue before), then you can let the referees hand out penalties for really obvious cases. They could make the call using their own judgment. There’s even a precedent for that: Virtually every other penalty in the rulebook.
So if everyone hates the rules and the whole thing could be solved so easily, why doesn’t the league do it? Because this is the NHL, and they never fix stupid rules until something disastrous happens. The most famous horrible rule in hockey history was the mid-90s “skate-in-the-crease” debacle, in which a league wisely responded to the onset of the crushingly dull Dead Puck Era by creating a rule that made it even harder to score.
Fans hated the crease rule, and with good reason, since it trained us to respond to any goal by immediately looking at the referee to see if we were supposed to cheer. But the league stubbornly insisted on sticking with it, right up until Brett Hull scored the Cup-winning goal with his skate in the crease and wasn’t call for it. The league quickly scrapped the rule, cementing their well-earned reputation for only reacting to an obvious problem after it’s already way too late.
We’ll probably need the same sort of worst-case scenario to play out to get rid of the puck-over-glass rule, too. We’ve already seen the rule decide a Game 7 (back in 2006, when the Hurricanes beat the Sabres thanks to a clearly accidental Brian Campbell clearing attempt), but apparently that wasn’t enough. We’re going to need a crucial overtime game to be decided thanks to a puck-over-the-glass power play. If we’re lucky enough to have the call eliminate a big market team like the Rangers, the rule will probably be taken out behind the barn and shot the next morning.
Here’s hoping it happens. So far this postseason, all the puck-over-glass penalties aren’t translating into many goals. That might be good luck, or it could be a case of the hockey gods refusing to reward such an obvious travesty. But if we’re lucky, they’re just building up the tension.
So let’s all root for a terrible puck-over-glass call to decide this year’s champion. Only by embracing the dumbest rule in hockey can we hope to see it killed off once and for all.