The NHL this week released and distributed a video to referees for the upcoming season as a guideline on various rules. Above all, the video focuses on explaining exactly what constitutes an illegal head shot.
It’s an interesting approach to officiating this season. The biggest problem when it comes to illegal hits in recent years is that nobody seems to know what constitutes an illegal hit. The league has been erratic in disciplining players, and referees seem constantly confused on the issue.
Part of this problem stems from the fact that the NHL seems to discipline actions based more on the consequences than the actions themselves. Highly illegal hits often go completely unpunished and unnoticed when the player gets up and skates away, while perfectly legal hits have come under heavy scrutiny when somebody’s gotten hurt. Several times in the past few seasons the league has disciplined players after referees have chosen not to call a penalty.
I think the bigger issue, though, is that the NHL has never chosen to carefully define what constitutes an illegal hit. They seem to take what we in law school might call a common law approach, leaving the written rules ambiguous and dealing with cases as they come depending on the context. Contrast this with the NFL, which has e.g. clearly outlawed any hit to the head of the quarterback, and faces comparatively little controversy when it comes to discipline.
In many ways it’s is easier not to carefully outline exactly what constitutes an illegal hit, since it allows the NHL to avoid antagonizing either camp in the debate over head shots. However, it largely causes confusion when we’re trying to figure out what’s in bounds and what deserves a suspension.
The new rules and this video are a good step forward. We’re starting to see exactly what constitutes a disciplinary hit: if it’s from the side, it’s illegal; if it’s from the front, it’s fine. But there are still some grey areas. Check out the hit at the 3-minute mark in the video. The NHL cites it as an example of a clean hit, but it looks lateral to me; clearly, there’s room for disagreement over what constitutes a blindside or a lateral hit.
We’ll definitely see this come into controversy later this season, since it’s still not entirely clear what constitutes an illegal hit. However, this video will at least give fans (and referees) some point of reference to judge hits by, and that’s a decent start.
I’m curious to see how it’ll play out.