Hockey is a sport of trends as well as evolution. That includes the enforcement of the rulebook and the development of the rules themselves. The enforcement of some rules is stressed more than others, often in reaction to certain controversies or complaints. In the meantime, other rules rarely get enforced nowadays.
A good example: The illegal stick penalty.
When was the last time you saw a National Hockey League game -- or game in any league -- in which a team called for a stick measurement on an opposing player? It's been quite a long time.
Nowadays, NHL Rule 10.5 (stick measurements) is gathering cobwebs, even though illlegal stick penalties are still on the books both for skaters and goaltenders. In fact, I'd be willing to wager that if you took a game-night tour of any given rink in the NHL, KHL, AHL, SHL, etc., there is a strong likelihood that you won't even find on hand a measuring gauge for the curve and measuring tape for other dimensions.
In the ECAC, we put together a kit with all the equipment that officials need -- including a rulebook for a handy refresher of stick measurement procedures -- in the unlikely event that the legality of a stick is challenged. It gets used about as often as people follow along on the safety card in the pocket in front of their airplane seat, but it's there if needed.
Do players nowadays play with illegal sticks? Of course they do.
This is a sport where players and coaches will seek any small advantage they can gain and push the envelope of the rules as far as they can until they finally get called on it. In an era where stick curve and stick dimensions are almost never challenged in games -- so there is little to no risk of "accidentally on purpose" use of an illegal stick -- of course the rules get widely bent (pun intended).
I could not even venture a guess as to the number of sticks that get used in games nowadays that are illegal in one or more aspects.
For example, it is a poorly kept secret that there are many players from the NHL and other leagues who use illegal sticks on special teams. Many players add some curve to their power play sticks, and see no reason to stop at today's legal maximum three-quarter inch curve since there's no risk of a challenge. There are also "penalty killing sticks" in use that are different from the ones used in even-strength situations, and some of these sticks no doubt push the envelope of legal dimensions.
Among others, John Tortorella is one NHL head coach who is well-known in the business for having his penalty killers switch to longer sticks, so they can have more reach into the passing lanes and block more shots. Along with assistant coach Craig Ramsay -- a master of coaching team defense and penalty killing -- Torts did it with his Stanley Cup-winning 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning team. He has carried it over to subsequent stops.
I can't really blame teams for doing it. In many cases, we're not talking about egregious stick violations, just technical ones.
Think of it like driving a few miles per hour over the posted speed limit. If you get pulled over after police radar clocks you marginally above the limit, you're still going to get a speeding ticket. However, if it is a minor violation, the risk of getting pulled over is slim. Some folks push it more than others, though, and some habitually speed by a significant margin.
Same deal in hockey, except that even sticks that can visually be detected as illegal (meaning they are well in excess of the legal curve and dimension limits) have been staying in play in recent years in the NHL. Again, if the risk of a challenge is very slight, the envelope gets pushed further.
It wasn't always that way. There was a time when there was a lot of stick challenges during games. Additionally, if you recall the earliest days of the NHL shootout, sticks were measured as soon as the teams selected their shooters; causing a rather lengthy delay before the shootout began. Today, shootout stick measurements are on a challenge-only basis, with special rules in place for the protocol of what to do if the stick is discovered to be either illegal or legal.
Time for a little history lesson and some personal anecdotes.
As legend has it, one day in the early 1960s, Chicago Blackhawks forward Stan Mikita broke his flat-bladed stick during practice. Feeling a bit lazy and not wanting to take the long hike back to get a new one, Mikita continued to use the broken stick. He and teammate Bobby Hull were amazed by the knuckleball-like movement on the puck that came from shooting with the now boomerang-shaped blade.
In the weeks that followed, Mikita and Hull experimented with deliberately curving sticks by heating the blades and bending them in door jambs. They practiced shooting and handling the puck, and soon mastered their use. Eventually, the duo convinced their reluctant coach, Billy Reay, to let them use the sticks in games.
Even if Andy Bathgate and others used curved sticks years earlier than Mikita and Hull, it was the prolific scoring of the Chicago duo that popularized what became known as the banana-blade stick. Hockey being a copycat sport, players leaguewide started to adopt similar sticks.
During the 1960s, the banana-blade stick soon became a fearsome weapon, especially for goaltenders. Hull and other players would often deliberately fire their first shot of the game just wide of the goalie's head; a big reason why the end of the era of the maskless goaltender would soon be at hand. The often-unpredictable movement on the puck created a safety risk, not to mention making saves more difficult.
Before the 1970-71 season, the National Hockey League set the legal maximum curve at one-half inch. This was done for the aforementioned safety reasons.
As was the case in so many areas of the game during the 1970s, Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero was way ahead of the curve (I'll stop with the bad puns now) in tracking sticks. He did so both for his own players -- in the event that another team would challenge -- and in gathering intelligence on the players on other teams.
As many of you know from previous blogs, when I was a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, I worked around the Class of 1923 Skating Rink when not practicing with my team. The facility doubled as the Flyers' practice rink in those days, and even visiting NHL teams would sometimes rent ice time to practice before an upcoming game at the Spectrum.
Before my graduation from Penn, I was sort of a gofer for Shero and the Flyers while they were at the rink. That was how I got to know Shero and the members of the Cup-winning Broad Street Bullies teams. I also had a key to the visitors' locker room.
One day, Freddie came into the rink seeing me lug a trash can with broken sticks and blades from another team's practice. He motioned me to come over to him.
"Paul, where should those sticks go?" he asked.
"In the trash," I replied, not yet grasping where he was going with the conversation.
He shook his head and said, "Take them to my office."
With one of his ever-present cigarettes dangling from his mouth, Shero proceeded to measure the stick dimensions with a tape measure. Back in that era, people also did the "dime test" (seeing if a dime would pass through the blade curve) to measure the curve.
Since I had access to other teams' dressing rooms as well as the Flyers, Shero had me go in and observe which players used which sticks and, more importantly, who had ones that were illegal. I would then report my findings to the Flyers' coach, and he would scrawl notes for his personal use. Shero also had assistant coach Mike Nykoluk circle back and gather his own intelligence of this nature to be sure their findings matched.
If necessary in game situations, Shero would challenge a stick. In an era where few other coaches even thought to track sticks, Freddie never got one wrong. He didn't do it very often but when he did, the result was a foregone conclusion.
In the meantime, Flyers' defenseman Ed Van Impe was one of quite a few players around the league who played with a wider-than-legal stick. Freddie knew it and told Van Impe to be mindful of it, but it wasn't challenged. The reason why Van Impe and other players would use it was as a weapon of punishment and intimidation. Getting slashed or cross-checked with one of those things was very painful. Many less-than-daring opponents would stay along the perimeter -- and away from the "money areas" of the ice -- rather than go anywhere near Van Impe and other players who wielded heavy (and illegal) lumber.
The next coach I saw who was a master at stick challenges was Jacques Demers. There were some others who were good at it -- LA's Mike Murphy comes to mind -- but Jacques had few peers.
Demers was my coach, both in the WHA with the Cincinnati Stingers and in the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques. Later, I interacted with him many, many times in a refereeing capacity. In a blog I have planned for the end of next week, I will talk in depth about Jacques as a coach and person. Extraordinary man who channeled the emotion of the game better than any coach I've ever seen. It's what Jacques did best.
Demers is illiterate (a fact he kept successfully hidden for decades from everyone including his family) but that does not mean he is dumb. Far from it. Jacques is a sharp guy who was good at his job. Among many examples is the way he knew an illegal stick when he saw one and kept a mental "notebook" on everyone around the league.
In 1987-88, I refereed a game between Demers' Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins. A situation developed in which the Wings' Bob Probert received a major and game misconduct, which put the Red Wings shorthanded for five minutes. I skated over to the Red Wings bench and explained the call to Demers, ignoring the semi-coherent yapping of nearby assistant coach Colin Campbell.
Demers pursed his lips but did not argue the penalty call. Instead, he said, "Stewy, [Bruins defenseman Gord] Kluzak is using an illegal stick. We're challenging."
I went over to the Bruins' bench and ran down the procedure with coach Terry O'Reilly. If Kluzak's stick was illegal, the stick would be removed from play and Kluzak would get a two-minute minor. If the stick was legal, the Red Wings would get an additional two-minute bench minor on top of the five-minute penalty on Probert.
A dumbfounded Raymond Bourque confronted me on the ice. "Wait, so are you actually challenging Kluzak's stick?"
"I'm not challenging anything, Ray," I said. "I'm just measuring. It's Detroit's right to challenge. Besides, last time I saw a stick like this, it was at LL Bean. They sold it as a canoe paddle."
Sure enough, Jacques was right. Kluzak's stick was illegal, and the Red Wings shaved two minutes off their impending penalty kill, turning the manpower situation into two minutes of four-on-four play before a three-minute penalty kill.
Years later, of course, Demers famously challenged Marty McSorley's stick in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final between the Montreal Canadiens and the Los Angeles Kings. Demers coached the Habs and the Kings were coached by Barry Melrose, who was my teammate under Jacques with Cincy in our WHA days.
The successful challenge helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup for the 24th time in their illustrious history. They weren't expected to win it that year and haven't won another one since, so Jacques' savvy stands out even more 21 years and many Habs coaches later.
Following the Canadiens' Cup win, stick challenges went for awhile from occasional happenings to regular ones. For a couple years after that Habs Cup, there were stick challenges galore.
During the 1994-95 season, I refereed a game between the Hartford Whalers and Tampa Bay Lightning. The coaches on the respective benches were Terry Crisp for Tampa and Paul Holmgren for Hartford; two men who had played for Shero in Philadelphia in the 1970s. Crispy became Shero's protege as he prepared to move into coaching after his playing career. Freddie had passed away five years before this game, but was no doubt smiling from above at what would unfold.
Late in the third period, Tampa's Petr Klima scored a go-ahead power play goal to give the Lightning a 4-3 lead. Immediately after the goal was scored, Holmgren motioned me over to the Whalers' bench and told me he was challenging Klima's stick.
Now, as soon as Homer told me he was challenging, I knew what the result would be when we measured the stick. So did Crispy. Everyone in hockey knew that Klima played with illegal sticks, especially on the power play.
Crisp urgently whispered in Klima's ear. The player broke his stick blade off the shaft and threw it behind the bench for the coaches to hide. The Lightning refused to surrender the stick for measurement. Short of climbing into the player bench and singlehandedly fighting off players and coaches to wrest away the stick blade, I wasn't going to get my hands on the damn thing.
Under the provisions of the rulebook, I had no other choice but to follow the protocol of what was then Rule 19(e). I assessed a minor and a misconduct to Klima for refusing to surrender the stick. However, the goal had to stand because I was not empowered to disallow it based on an illegal stick whether or not I had been able to measure.
The Lightning won the game by that same 4-3 score.
Strategically speaking, Holmgren should have challenged Klima's stick BEFORE he scored a goal with it. The Whalers' manpower disadvantage would have been wiped out by the illegal stick penalty, and Klima would not have been on the ice to score the go-ahead goal.
Meanwhile, Crisp and Klima didn't have to go through the whole cloak-and-dagger routine to keep the offending stick away from me. I couldn't disallow the goal regardless of the result of a stick measurement.
Incidentally if you look in today's NHL rule book under Section 10.5, the same result would happen if there was a stick challenge after a goal in regulation (post-goal overtime challenges are not permitted). The goal would stand regardless of whether the player put the puck in the net with an illegal stick.
I'm sure the announcers and the writers would still go bonkers wanting to know how those incompetent refs could let the goal stay on the board. The real source of blame can be found in the rulebook, if they'd deign to read it before automatically criticizing the officials.
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 HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.