Milan Lucic (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
This past Saturday, Boston's Milan Lucic and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby scored goals using their feet. The rule regarding pucks that are kicked or deflected by skates has become so vague that is causes more problems than it offers solutions, and it's about time the league does something to fix it.
Look, this is hockey, right? It’s not soccer. We’re continuously reminded of that when an NHL player embellishes after being hit. The tsk-tsking can be heard from Antigonish to Anaheim and the men responsible for punishing on-ice wrongdoing announce they’re fining the perpetrator. It’s hardly the most critical problem facing the game, but there’s a segment of the hockey world that insists rugged hockey players cannot adopt the theatrics of “soft” soccer players. It’s not in keeping with hockey’s identity.
So why are many of these same people so permissive of goals that are directed in by skates and not sticks? This isn’t soccer.
After a pair of important tallies last Saturday afternoon, the spotlight fell again on one of the NHL’s worst rules, the standard that allows players to use their feet to score goals.
Let’s begin with this basic premise: Hockey is a stick and puck game and the object is for players to use their sticks to shoot or direct the puck in the net. From the outset, using the stick to score was more than encouraged; it was codified in the game’s rules. Good old Rule 55 (d) disallowed all goals that were “kicked, thrown or otherwise deliberately directed by any means other than a stick.” If a puck ricocheted off a player’s skate, that was fine, but if that player moved his foot at all to steer the puck into the net, the goal was washed out. It was very simple.
So that’s intrinsic to the stick and puck sport. Depart from that standard and you’re asking for trouble.
Which is just what the NHL did beginning in the 1990s. With the league in the grip of the “Dead Puck Era” -- when neutral zone defenses combined with improved goaltending (which was aided by inflated goalie equipment) to stifle offensive hockey-- the league declined for years to address the matter head-on. Rather than remove the two-line pass to improve the molasses game flow or deflate Michelin man netminders, they sought artificial ways to reverse declining scoring. One was to loosen the standard of good ol’ Rule 55 (d). Starting in 1996, the NHL permitted the use of feet to score goals as long as players did not use “a distinct kicking motion.”
Until this season, the rulebook contained the definition that a distinct kicking motion “is one which, with a pendulum motion, the player propels the puck with his skate into the net.” Now that passage in Rule 34.4 38.4 (iv) is gone, replaced by a motion in “which the player propels the puck with his skate into the net,” although if that motion was made by the player while he turned his skate to stop, the goal is allowed.
Regardless of how the rule reads, its enforcement has long caused problems.
When you Google “distinct kicking motion,” you get an entertaining history of what many believe is a confused and inconsistent application of a bad rule, often rooted in the determination of what is and what isn’t a kick. Over the years, the league has not only fiddled with the wording, it has attempted to clarify it through these videos (compiled two seasons ago) and it has detailed the criteria used when evaluating pucks that go in off skates. None of it seems to help.
They’ve also taken to the airwaves. During the 2010 playoffs, a nullified Canucks goal against the Kings prompted this on-air explanation from NHL VP Mike Murphy over Hockey Night In Canada…
… in which he stressed the difficulty involved in making these calls (and this particular call also prompted wild conspiracy theories since Murphy once played for and coached the Kings). And in that interview, besides the confession the rule was changed because the NHL wanted more goals scored, Murphy explained that the goal was waved off even though there was no distinct kicking motion because Daniel Sedin knew what he was doing by redirecting the puck with his skate.
Of course, last season, Murphy’s Situation Room cohort Kris King got on an Islanders telecast to discuss a disallowed game-winning goal by Thomas Vanek and contradicted Murphy by saying, “We don’t judge intent on kicks.”
That’s what happens when these poor guys in Hockey Operations have to defend a bad rule.
Early during Saturday’s game in Boston, the Bruins' Milan Lucic drove to the Rangers net after rusty Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist served him a juicy rebound. Lucic turned his right leg outward and moved it forward, likely to bring the puck under control. Instead, it flew goalward, past Lundqvist and Lucic’s leg movement sure seemed to have propelled the puck into the net.
On the ice, Referee Jean Hebert ruled no goal but…
… the Situation Room in Toronto overturned the call on the ice, calling it a mere deflection. Even the Boston announcers, not famous for their objectivity, were somewhat surprised at the decision.
It was the game’s first goal and it propelled Boston to score three more in succession in a decisive 4-2 victory.
That same afternoon in Pittsburgh, during the third period against the Coyotes, the Penguins Sidney Crosby tried a tip-in at the edge of the crease, but the puck deflected upward against his shin pad. It then traveled downward and into the crease. Crosby moved his right foot forward, his toe making contact with the puck and sending it over the goal line. It happened fast and you need the slow-mo ice level and overhead replay angles to follow the puck’s path.
The call on the ice was good goal and the Situation Room upheld that ruling, again calling it a deflection off Crosby’s skate. It ended up as the game-winning goal. It’s also a worrisome precedent, especially for goalies: If this little kick is legal, Chris Kreider, Brendan Gallagher and crease crashers everywhere must be rejoicing.
Anyone can see that in both the Lucic and Crosby instances, the player’s skate did more than just deflect the puck. It propelled the puck into the goal, but apparently even that standard now has a good deal of latitude. And that flexibility reveals just how badly the NHL wants to see more goals scored.
You can be sure we haven’t seen the last of these – hey, playoffs are just around the corner! -- and what may be clear in the Situation Room remains pretty murky for everyone else. For some, the solution to this confusion is to just allow every kicked puck to count as a goal, in which case, we might see NHL teams try to sign Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi and teach them to skate. Fortunately, the league and the team general managers have resisted taking the rule that far, recognizing the potential injury danger of swinging skate blades.
The real solution is to simply roll back the rule to pre-1996. Let hockey be hockey. If the league and the GMs want more goals, perhaps they should take another look at the enlarged sizes of what goalies wear, both their pants and under their sweaters. But don’t expect that. It’s apparently easier to live with the vagaries of the distinct kicking motion.