09/04/2014 10:04 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Before You Accuse, Learn the Rules

I can't tell you how many games I see over the course of a season where plays happen and the national and local announcers and in-studio hosts act like they are puzzled as to why certain calls get made the way they do or why penalties are meted out in specific ways.

Listen, I have many friends in the hockey media, both on the broadcasting and print media side of the business. Most of them are good people and I respect the difficulty of the jobs they do. I will also say they are knowledgeable of their audiences and of many facets of the game.

I will tell you, however, that there is one area of the game where many in the hockey media are rather weak: their knowledge of the rule book. This includes many former players and coaches who change careers and become broadcasters after leaving the ice.

Penalty shot rulings are a good example of an area where many hockey broadcasters lack authority on the rile book. There are five criteria for a penalty shot to be called: 1) the attacking player is fouled from behind, 2-3) the attacker is past the red line and has passed everyone on the defending team except the goalie, 4) the attacker has possession and control of the puck and 5) the attacker loses a reasonable scoring chance as a result of the foul.

Some years ago, I worked as a between-periods color commentator for New England Sports Network. One night, I opined that Kerry Fraser had made the correct penalty shot ruling in a game between the Bruins and Canadiens. I caught a lot of flak for it afterwards.

The call on the ice had gone against the Bruins. I was told I should "have been on our side, been a Bruin" rather than backing Kerry based on the dictates of the rulebook. It got me fired from the job, actually, because the network wanted its broadcasters to root, root, root for the Bruins and, if a call went against them, it had to be wrong.

Here's the thing: Fraser got it right, and I said so. If he had made the wrong call, then I would have said "Kerry is one of the best but he got that one wrong." My belief was and will always be, call it right and to hell with the critics.

Quite often, the media guys who shout the loudest about "blown calls" -- such as Messrs. Cherry and Milbury -- are pretty shaky on their knowledge of the ins and outs of the rulebook, and its many permutations. They're also not too inclined to actually go into the rulebook to research the answers they seek.

Now is as good of a time as any to give my take on Cherry to my Huffington Post readers. For the most part, I like Don. He still has his place in the game and things he says should be viewed in a certain context. Don Cherry offers opinion-as-entertainment. For all his decades in the game, expert analysis has never been his strong suit. He realizes that.

Ron MacLean, Cherry's longtime HNIC partner and foil, actually knows the rules. He is a certified referee in the Canadian Hockey Association who has refereed junior, minor pro, senior, and university leagues across Canada and once refereed part of an NHL preseason game. As such, when an NHL rule has to be explained to viewers after Cherry rants about a call or non-call, it is usually MacLean who provides the most accurate explanation.

There is also rather widespread ignorance of the rulebook within the hockey print media at large. Just once, I'd love to see members of the media cover a refereeing training camp or attend a rules symposium in a journalistic capacity or simply for research purposes. Maybe more could keep a paper copy of rulebook handy for reference as they work or, alternatively, download a copy for their computer or bookmark the online rulebook on their Web browser.

After the Ray Emery-Braden Holtby incident last season, many national and local outlets wrote words to the effect that "there are no rules in the NHL rulebook that deal with this sort of situation." That was incorrect, and all anyone had to do was look up the Aggressor Rule (Rule 46.2) to see the standards that got applied.

Now, I personally think what Emery did was worthy of a match penalty apart from the aggressor penalty but don't go telling people that there's "no rule in the book" that deals with someone fighting an unwilling opponent. Do some research first before declaring a rule doesn't exist at all.

There actually are many instances in which the rulebook gets amended to address ways players and coaches try to stay one step ahead of the rules.

For example, my late friend Roger Neilson -- a coach who absolutely knew the rulebook inside and out and how to exploit the letter of the law -- was singlehandledly responsible for many loopholes being subsequently closed. One of the most famous Neilson rules is what is currently part of Rule 24.2 in the NHL's rulebook: "Only a player designated as a goalkeeper or alternate goalkeeper may defend against the penalty shot." That rulebook language was put in place because Neilson used to send out a defenseman to rush at try to disrupt the shooter before he could get off a shot.

Back during the early portion of Dave "the Hammer" Schultz's playing days, he used fighting tactics that were not outlawed at the time -- fighting with his hands taped, sometimes grabbing a handful of hair or even leading with his head to headbutt an opponent , all of which he did in his infamous beatdown of New York Rangers defenseman Dale Rolfe in Game 7 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Semifinals -- but which were put in the rulebook to combat Schultz and copycat players. In fact, the Broad Street Bullies era Flyers brought about other rule changes designed to prevent teams from using fights as a game tactic.

As a matter of fact, studying the changes in the rulebook over the years is a real good way to learn about hockey history. If you want to trace the ways teams have tried to push the envelope -- and then found new loopholes when the rules were amended to outlaw whatever they were doing -- there's no better way to learn about it than by learning about the evolution of the rulebook.

Final thoughts: Referees and linesmen on the ice get one initial look at a play at full speed, and have to make a split-second ruling. Has it ever occurred to folks when they are looking at a replay five or more times from multiple angles and with slow-motion and stop-motion, that the officials they are blasting for "blowing the call" had a real tough call to make? The fact of the matter is, more often than not, the call on the ice was correct even on split-second decisions.

Errors get made, of course. Officials make their share of mistakes.Then again, so do players, coaches, general managers and the press. Before unleashing a torrent of criticism, people should at least know the actual rule they're taking the official to task for failing to enforce correctly.

Next week, I will talk about a rule that rarely gets cited nowadays: the illegal stick penalty.


Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart's writings can also be found on every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.