Why It's So Hard for the NHL to Establish Clarity Around Goalie Interference

Abbey MastraccoMay 25, 2022

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 10: The puck goes in but Boston Bruins winger Nick Foligno (17) is called for interference on Carolina Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen (31) during a game between the Boston Bruins and the Carolina Hurricanes on February 10, 2022 at TD garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rule 69.1 in the official NHL rulebook, "Interference on the Goalkeeper," is one of the most difficult rules to understand and one of the most difficult to determine as an official.

It's 381 words, and that doesn't even include rules 69.2-69.8, which are supposed to provide clarity and context for every situation involving goalie's interference.

No wonder it seems like no one knows what the rule actually entails. 

Each year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs cast a shadow on the officials who are tasked with determining what is and is not goalie interference. And it's not just the officials on the ice—fans might love to yell, "Ref, you suck!" but often times, it's the league officials in the situation room in Toronto making the final calls when a challenge is initiated for goalie interference.

Perhaps "official in the situation room in Toronto, you suck!" is too wordy of a chant. Fair enough.

We know that the NHL has been in the midst of an officiating crisis for a few years now, but this one set of standards, in particular, can have more of a direct effect on the outcome of games than maybe something like a missed crosscheck or an errant hook. 

The New York Rangers might have won the first game of their opening-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in regulation had a goal not been disallowed. Instead, they played a triple-overtime thriller, and backup goalie Louis Domingue stole the game for Pittsburgh.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour would have "bet [his] life" on Jake DeBrusk's goal in Game 4 of the series against the Boston Bruins being overturned, but the NHL said the incidental contact was allowable. 

Conor Ryan @ConorRyan_93

Good goal.<br><br>Jake DeBrusk ties it on the power play. <a href="https://t.co/pUxdsAI0Yk">pic.twitter.com/pUxdsAI0Yk</a>

In Game 1 of the Lightning-Panthers series, Anthony Cirelli clipped Florida Panthers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky in the head, but the goal was upheld after review.

Ryan Gilbert @RGilbertSOP

Cirelli made contact with Bobrovsky's head in the blue paint. Panthers challenged for goalie interference, but it was still ruled a good goal. <a href="https://t.co/kVL3ILjZCL">pic.twitter.com/kVL3ILjZCL</a>

Confused? So are we.

Let's take a deeper look at the rule and the process in which goalie interference is determined to see if we can figure out why it's so difficult to properly assess.

What Is Goaltender Interference?

The rule was introduced for the 1991-92 season with a pretty simple philosophy: A penalty is issued when an attacking skater makes contact with the goaltender, impeding, limiting or altogether eliminating his ability to protect the net and stop the puck.

The rule has evolved as technology has evolved, and in 2015-16, coaches were allowed to challenge for goaltender interference. In 2018, the NHL announced that the situation room would have the final say in an attempt to have more consistent rulings.

Here is how the most crucial part of the rule reads this season:

"Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact."

If you're having trouble following, it's a way to keep things fair for the goalies, who have more limited movement in their pads and are restricted to certain areas where they can and cannot play the puck. The onus is on the skater to prevent contact that would keep a goalie from being unable to protect the net.

Meanwhile, the challenge mechanism is in place to allow coaches to get a final ruling on the play by league using all available video feeds.

How Is Goalie Interference Determined?

Let's use the aforementioned disallowed goal from Game 1 of that Rangers-Penguins series as an example. The Penguins turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko took it down to the offensive zone, coming down the wing and curling in front of the crease with speed.

With Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin on the backcheck, there was a collision in front of the net that knocked goalie Casey DeSmith out of it completely. The play was kept alive, and Kakko flicked the puck to Filip Chytil, who shot the puck into an open net.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan challenged for goalie interference and won, stating after the game that the Penguins had been a perfect 8-for-8 in those challenge calls on the season. 

New York fans were livid, saying the officials were biased toward the Penguins. After all, Dumoulin clearly leaned into Kakko right before the collision.

But Sullivan's video team saw that Kakko failed to make an effort to avoid crashing into DeSmith, so the contact by Dumoulin was immaterial.

The success rate of the Pittsburgh video personnel shows that they are adept at quickly determining whether or not their goalies were interfered with. 

The decision-making process, which has to work at lightning speed, often starts with the video replay teams. Video coordinators have less than a minute to issue a recommendation to the bench, and there has to be "indisputable evidence" to overturn a call.

The replay teams have a set of criteria they have to be able to quickly identify:

  • Was the contact inside or outside of the crease?
  • Was it initiated by the goalie's own defenseman, or was it by an attacking skater?
  • Was that contact avoidable, and did the skater make an effort to avoid the contact?
  • Did the goalie have enough time to get back into position before the goal was scored?
  • Did the contact have a material impact on the goalie's ability to make a save?

There are other variables that go into these decisions as well, like where the puck was, the score in the game, how much time is left on the clock and whether or not the goalie fought for his ice or just remained on the ground when he was able to regain his position (i.e., did he flop). 

There are times when even goaltenders don't immediately realize they have been interfered with, which is why teams rely on replay personnel. They issue a recommendation to the coach on whether or not to challenge. 

Then, the officials put on the headset and dial up the Situation Room, where the feeds are analyzed. 

It's important to note that the officials in Toronto have more available angles than the teams. They have more overhead angles and net camera feeds, which is often why it takes them longer than the 15-30 seconds it takes the video coordinators.

Why Is It So Hard to Determine?

There is a lot of gray area, and it leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

At the end of the day, it's a judgment call, and those are never 100 percent correct. Getting calls wrong can be embarrassing for the officials on the ice.

The league will issue explanations for the rulings but aren't allowed to be questioned. Many have suggested allowing a pool reporter from the media to ask for clarification, which is a common practice in the three other major North American professional sports leagues.

A direct line from the video booths to Toronto might help clarify things as well since the video coordinators from each team can relay the angles and time codes they are looking at.

Stephen Whyno @SWhyno

Every other major North American pro sports league has a policy in place for a crew chief or representative of officials to be made available to reporters, except the NHL. <a href="https://t.co/EyvoVH6jWV">https://t.co/EyvoVH6jWV</a>

But while the inconsistent outcomes can be maddening, the priority is getting the call right, especially during the postseason. This can be extremely difficult given just how quickly goals are scored. The speed should not be understated. The game is fast out there. 

What you see on Twitter might not be what they're seeing in Toronto. So the next time you're ready to get fired up thinking it was a blown call, ask yourself, do you really know what goalie interference is? Do any of us really know what it is?