There once was a time when a toe could make or break a game in the National Hockey League. One sliver of a skate in the crease could result in a no-goal call. One inconsequential fragment of a skater’s body part in the blue paint could eliminate a goal. The no-goal due to a skate in the crease was first enacted in the NHL for the 1991-92 season along with an increase in the size and shape of the crease. In conjunction with these changes, the NHL introduced video replay for the first time. These three changes would create controversy throughout the 1990’s, and everything culminated in 1999 during game six of the Stanley Cup Finals where the Dallas Stars took a 3-2 series lead into Buffalo against the Sabres.
Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek, winner of the two previous NHL MVP awards in 1997 and 1998, had been unbelievable for the seventh seeded Sabres in the 1999 playoffs thus far, and needed another spectacular start to force a game seven back in Dallas. The game was tied at one through 60 minutes of play. The game pushed on into overtime, double overtime and finally triple OT. Nearing the end of the third overtime period, with just over five minutes of play remaining, Mike Modano finds Jere Lehtinen who takes a shot from the left circle, Hasek makes the save but the puck is loose, Mike Modano comes in to wack at it but the puck magically finds it’s way onto Brett Hull’s stick and he puts it home for the Stanley Cup winning goal! But wait, it appears that Hull’s foot was in the crease. The rule stated that one could be in the create only after the puck had already been there first. Despite that initially happening, the puck left the crease but Hull’s foot did not, and then he scores. Commissioner Gary Bettman said that because he kept possession the goal was allowed to count, but many disagreed, including Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. According to the rule book, and how it had been called since 1991, the goal should not have counted. But who wants to call back a Stanley Cup winning goal in triple overtime? After much controversy, the NHL redacted the “toe-in-the-crease” rule and the system we have today was created.
At the time, an overwhelming majority agreed with the elimination of such a strict rule on goaltender interference. A toe in the crease that has nothing to do with the play shouldn’t be overturned. It was incredibly frustrating to always have to wonder if a scramble in front of the net will result in a no-goal call because of an errant skate blade. Since 1999, the game has changed dramatically. Along with the elimination of the foot-in-the-crease rule, the crease itself shrunk from it’s previous half moon shape that extended to what we know today. After 2005, the two-line pass became legal, and the game became faster than ever.
With so many changes to the game’s speed and players’ skill , along with the ever shrinking size of goaltender’s equipment and the addition of carbon fiber sticks (as opposed to wooden ones), and the frustration that has grown due to very inconsistent calling on goaltender interference, it’s time for the NHL to revisit a more strict crease rule. There are certainly pros and cons, but here are several reasons why reenacting a more strict rule is viable.
- The crease is smaller than it was in the 1990’s, making it less likely for a player to find themselves in the crease but so far out of the play it makes no difference.
- The type of hacking and shoving that used to be synonymous with standing in front of the net have all but faded. Therefore, it’s much easier to get positioning in front of the net, so players can stand where they need to without having to worry about a cross-check to the back. This fact means its less likely for the back of a player’s skates to end up in the crease.
- The current rule allows for too much subjectivity. Even with the league shifting to allow replay officials to make the call on goaltender interference, there will still be subjective calls with different rulings. Even the same person, from game-to-game could potentially make different calls on similar plays. You can find the current ruling here on page 162-166. The foot-in-the-crease rule would eliminate almost all subjectivity on the matter.
- The size of the crease could be adjusted to be shortened to only 4 feet from the net, eliminating the circular portion and have it stop at the posts whereas currently it goes one foot beyond. Goalies would still be able to roam outside the crease, and if they’re physically impeded it can still result in a no-goal call, but it would eliminate some of the fringe “toe-in-the-crease” fiascoes.
- The NHL could adopt IIHF Rule 184i, 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.” However, the solution given in this article seems like a more balanced approach. Stopping the play during an offensive attack just because of positioning seems extreme. It doesn’t give the skater an opportunity to reset and establish legal positioning.
These five concepts create as objective of a goalie interference rule as one can create. Frustrations would still arise from such a rule, but the rule would be clear. Players and coaches could complain, but would ultimately understand since the rules are very apparent and obvious. The late Pat Burns, coach of the Boston Bruins at the time, was clearly upset after his Bruins had lost in double overtime of game three in the 1998 playoffs to the Washington Capitals because in the first overtime, his team had a goal called back due to a foot-in-the-crease that ultimately didn’t effect the play. “The rule is that, and that’s it. It’s no goal and I could sit here and moan about it for 15 or 20 minutes and it’s not going to change nothing,” said Burns.
Players, coaches and even fans would be more forgiving of a constant, consistent and objective rule with regards to goalie interference. Obviously, this is just a starting point. Language can be used to give referees and goal judges the ability to allow a goal if the the “toe-in-the-crease” had zero effect on the play. This does allow for some subjectivity but not nearly as much as is currently tolerated. The goaltender interference crisis will never be perfected but it will not be consistent until the NHL recognizes objectivity is king.
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