The 15 Unwritten Rules of the NHL
Every sport has its unwritten rules: traditions, customs or codes of conduct that are followed by players, coaches and referees even if they're not officially in the rule book.
As you will see in this article, hockey is full of these. Many, but certainly not all of them, involve fighting, something that is treated differently in the NHL than it is in any other professional sport in North America.
Here is a look at 15 unwritten rules in the NHL. Feel free to comment about the ones I have included or to add any you feel I may have missed.
I hope you enjoy this look at 15 of hockey's unwritten rules.
No Sucker Punches
There is a complex code to hockey fights, and very little of it is actually in the rule book.
One unwritten rule is when you drop the gloves, you do it head on. You don't jump someone from behind or sucker punch them, you look them in the eye and ask, "Do you wanna go?" or some similar invitation to drop the gloves.
Attacking someone from behind or sucker punching them is considered a cheap shot and not an honest way to start a fight.
Stop Punching When a Player Is Down on the Ice
With a few notable exceptions, NHL fights tend to end after one player is down on the ice.
Yes, sometimes, in a retaliation situation, the beating may go on, but in general, in a "fair fight," once a player is down on the ice and no longer putting up a fight, the beating stops. It is all part of respecting your opponent.
Most enforcers realize that they have a tough job to do, and they are not out to truly hurt their opponent, just to protect their teammates or give their team a lift. That is a big reason for this unwritten rule.
Don't Touch the Conference Trophy
It's a superstition more than anything. But most of the time, the unwritten rule is when a captain accepts the conference trophy from a league official, they don't touch it.
The idea is that if you touch the conference trophy, then that's enough and you won't win the Stanley Cup. Of course, if both conference-winning captains don't touch their conference trophy, only one of them is going to be rewarded with a Stanley Cup ring.
But that hasn't kept the superstition from continuing...
Rookies Should Know Their Place
This one is more internal, but it's a belief that rookies should know their place.
They may have to pick up the tab for the veterans at an expensive dinner, they may be expected to carry equipment bags or some other form of mild hazing, but rookies are expected to respect their more senior teammates and earn respect.
In the old days, the hazing was a bit more harsh, with rookies being shaved from head to toe as an infamous tradition.
Rookies today have it better than they ever did, even if they are expected to be seen and not heard.
Don't Cross the Red Line During Warm-Ups
Before each game and indeed before each period, both teams come on to the ice to warm up. The unwritten rule in this situation is that each team should stay on their own side of the red line.
When this rule is violated, the result is often a pregame brawl.
Sometimes, enforcers may violate this rule intentionally to start something, but 99 percent of the time, each team keeps to their own side of the red line.
Don't Shoot High on the Goalie During Warm-Ups
Another tradition during pregame warm-ups is don't shoot the puck high against your own goalie.
Maybe this unwritten rule got started before goalies had masks. Maybe it's just common sense. If 18 players are shooting pucks toward the goal, it would be dangerous to have multiple pucks aimed at a goalie's head.
Either way, it is frowned upon to do this, and it violates one of hockey's unwritten rules.
Don't Spray My Goalie
Goalies hate to have "snow" sprayed in their face, and his teammates are usually there to back up their goalie when an opposing player violates this unwritten rule.
If the goalie has control of the puck and the whistle blows, don't go spraying his face with snow. The result is usually at least a little pushing and shoving, often a little more.
The rule can be taken a step further: don't run my goalie. The further back in time you go in hockey, the more absolute this unwritten rule becomes. But it is still part of hockey culture today.
"The Code" of NHL fighters includes this maxim: don't turtle.
For those who aren't familiar with the term, turtling is when a player initiates a fight and then covers up like a turtle going into his shell without actually throwing a punch. This move is considered dishonorable.
If it "works," you may draw a penalty on the opposition without being called for one yourself, but you will also lose the respect of your fellow players, especially enforcers.
Always Try to Get Your Teammate That Third Goal
Late in a game, when your teammate has already scored twice, it is an unwritten NHL rule that you try to get him that third goal.
It may mean an extra pass or giving up a shot yourself, but generally, that's the way it's done.
Keep in mind, this will not take place in a situation where your team is down one goal with time running out, but if the game is settled, the unwritten rule is to go the extra mile to try to get your teammate that third, hat trick-completing goal.
Take off Your Gloves and Remove Visors Before Fighting
Yes, if you're going to fight, there are rules to follow. Drop your sticks, drop your gloves and please remove your visor before actually throwing haymakers.
Failure to remove your visor actually now results in a penalty, but the other parts of this rule are unwritten. In addition, true enforcers will often remove their helmets before a fight, even if neither of them are actually wearing visors.
Never Shoot the Puck on Net After the Whistle Blows
If the whistle blows, don't shoot the puck at the goalie.
This situation occurs most often when one team is called for offsides at the blue line. Once the whistle blows, it is a violation of an unwritten rule to fire the puck on net.
If the offense is deemed accidental, the goalie's teammate may get into the face of the offending opponent and say a few carefully chosen words. If it is deemed intentional, gloves may be dropped and a fight may break out.
Either way, it is considered bad form to violate this unwritten rule.
Keep Empty-Net Goal Celebrations Low Key
Unless we're talking about clinching the Stanley Cup, the unwritten rule in hockey is if you score an empty-net goal, the celebration is fairly low key. If no, it is considered "rubbing it in."
On a "normal" goal, players celebrate with raised sticks, big smiles and lots of hugs and congratulations. The celebration after an empty netter is "goal celebration light" in most cases.
Heavyweights Fight Heavyweights
In the modern NHL, the fighter's code says that heavyweights should pick on opponents their own size. You don't see a top enforcer going after a superstar. You see them going after another top enforcer.
Additionally, middleweights fight middleweights and so on down the line. There can be exceptions, usually when someone moves in spontaneously to defend a teammate. But on most occasions, the big tough guys target other big tough guys when they do their dirty work.
You won't find it written anywhere, but 99 percent of hockey players follow the tradition of playoff handshakes.
After up to seven games of trying to check, fight and beat the other team into submission, one of hockey's most time-tested unwritten rules says that the players and coaches from both sides line up and shake each other's hands.
Sure, there were some notable exceptions, like Isles goalie Billy Smith, who refused to take part in the handshake tradition, but that is very rare.
The handshake is a time-honored tradition and an unwritten rule followed by nearly every NHL player.
Don't Touch the Stanley Cup Until You Win It
Perhaps the ultimate unwritten rule in the NHL is that players don't touch the Stanley Cup until they win it.
Until then, you can look, but you can't touch. That's an honor a player has to earn.
It's not written in any rule book, but hockey players follow this edict to the letter even if they are only seeing the Stanley Cup at its permanent home at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.