NHL protective equipment rules leave goaltenders with dangerous choice
We’ve all seen it; players lose equipment on the ice regularly.
Sometimes, it’s a skater, and the equipment is something relatively minor. A forward will break a stick; a defenseman will knock his lid off, or perhaps drop a glove.
When a player loses his equipment, it’s never beneficial to his team, but it generally isn’t dire. The worst-case scenario is that he ends up tangled up in the play without adequate protection, but that’s somewhat rare; more often than not, he just has to find a way back to his equipment to gather it back up or head off the ice. In the instance that he loses a skate blade, he just has to hobble back to the bench behind the play, leaving the team effectively down a man for a brief moment.
Other times, though, it’s the goaltender that loses his equipment. That’s where the controversy arises.
If a goaltender loses his stick, it’s easy to argue that shouldn’t interrupt play. If a skater is expected to be in control of his stick at all times, the same should apply to the goaltender; if he has to make a save (or six) without it, so be it.
Losing a trapper, blocker, or helmet, though – in other words, losing some kind of protective equipment – is another story entirely.
If a player loses his glove, his worst-case scenario is blocking a shot with an exposed hand – and if he’s unprotected, chances are he won’t be inclined to put himself in that position.
More often, he simply has to handle the stick with a bare hand until he can grab his mitt again.
The same goes with his helmet. In theory, he should get off the ice as soon as is permissible, perhaps avoiding making another play altogether (although the NHL, unlike the IIHF, doesn’t require a player to leave the ice when he loses his helmet).
A goaltender, though, cannot do that – and often, when he loses protective equipment, it’s because he’s in the middle of the play. Which is where the problem comes in.
A shot to the hand is an easy way to suffer a broken bone, no matter who’s taking the shot. No goaltender in his right mind wants to block a shot without proper equipment, leaving him without one of his key tools for doing his job correctly and safely.
A shot to the head is much worse.
The only fan fatality in the 100-year history of the NHL was 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, the teenaged girl who was hit in the forehead by a deflected puck during a Columbus Blue Jackets game in 2002.
She’s not the only person to be hit in the head with an errant puck, and the other instances have been far less serious. Still, Steve Yzerman fractured a bone just below his eye when he was hit with a puck, and Chris Clark all but decimated his jaw when it took the brunt of an errant puck.
All three of those, of course, were deflected pucks. Any goaltender facing direct shots would likely deal with something far more powerful – and possibly deadly.
As with the lost glove or blocker, no goaltender in his right mind wants to face down a puck without his mask; he’s unlikely to even attempt to make a stop there, effectively stripping him of the ability to do his job at all.
Some shots taken at goaltenders with lost equipment have been called back. Just recently, John Gibson saw a goal revoked after the first shot hit him in the mask and knocked it off.
John Gibson getting hit with the puck in the helmet & knocked it off his head. Hoping he passes concussion protocol & also WTF Kings fans pic.twitter.com/hdfGfsH9DM
— Duane (@DuaneAAA) November 8, 2017
Others, though, have been upheld, like the one on Wednesday night:
MacKinnon shot blew a buckle off Hellebuyck's helmet, Compher swung and chipped it wide. Kerfoot chips it in! 1-1! pic.twitter.com/Ck9x70UZi8
— Avalanche Gifs (@Avs__Gifs) November 30, 2017
SAFETY VS HONESTY
In January of the 2015-16 season, Arizona Coyotes goaltender Louis Domingue saw a goal upheld after he had a mask malfunction of his own:
While playing the puck behind and around the net, Domingue was run from behind by Kings forward Tanner Pearson; he trips and falls to the ice, then gets up and removes his mask in time to watch the puck slide neatly past the goal line.
After the game, Domingue revealed that a strap had been knocked off during the play, shifting his mask so he couldn’t see a thing.
He had removed it in order to adjust it and regain sight lines, but the officials ruled that excuse a no-go; since he had voluntarily removed the equipment himself and there was ‘an immediate scoring opportunity’, it couldn’t be counted as grounds to blow the play dead.
Here’s the NHL’s official set of rules regarding masks coming off:
“NHL Rule 9 – Uniforms – 9.6 – Helmets – When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and his team has control of the puck, the play shall be stopped immediately to allow the goalkeeper the opportunity to regain his helmet and/or face mask.
When the opposing team has control of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity. This stoppage of play must be made by the Referee. When play is stopped because the goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask, the ensuing face-off shall take place at one of the defending team’s end zone face-off spots.
When a goalkeeper deliberately removes his helmet and/or face mask in order to secure a stoppage of play, the Referee shall stop play as outlined above and in this case assess the goalkeeper a minor penalty for delaying the game. If the goalkeeper deliberately removes his helmet and/or face mask when the opposing team is on a breakaway, the Referee shall award a penalty shot to the nonoffending team, which shot shall be taken by the player last in possession of the puck.”
In the aftermath of the Domingue incident, the biggest argument in favor of the official rule – which doesn’t permit play to stop immediately when faced with a scoring chance – was to prevent cheating.
In theory, people insisted, disallowing that goal would encourage all goaltenders to simply shuck their equipment when they didn’t want to be held responsible for plays any longer.
In reality, though, that’s a hard motive to justify.
No goaltender wants to run the risk of facing a shot head-on without any part of his equipment properly in place. Most, if not all, certainly wouldn’t intentionally remove equipment if there was a risk of the puck heading their way; while they would hope the play was blown dead, there’s always the chance that a player will shoot on or after the whistle and leave them in the line of fire.
In cases like Hellebuyck or Gibson, it’s even more difficult to imagine a scenario where there’s cheating going on.
The only way to even consider that either Hellebuyck or Gibson cheated is to argue that by not doing up their chin strap (assuming they even have it in their mask to begin with, which some goaltenders don’t altogether), they invite their mask to flip off more easily.
That’s a weak argument for cheating at best, though, and an easy one to solve; the NHL, much like the NFL, could enforce equipment penalties for not doing up the strap before each play.
Still, that doesn’t get to the root of the problem – which is that a goaltender isn’t going to intentionally face down a shot without a mask if he can help it. No level of cheating is worth becoming a vegetable when the shot deflects up off someone’s stick and smacks you in the skull.
There’s also the fact that a mask without all its functioning straps – which is another problem that arises when a goaltender gets hit in the mask with a puck – can be just as dangerous if you leave it on as if you remove it.
In some scenarios (as was the case with Domingue), you can lose your sight lines, playing effectively blind inside the mask.
More risky, though, is the fact that the mask is made to sit a specific way on a goaltender’s head. If it gets knocked askew, or if one of the straps holding it in place is broken by a shot, the risk of an improperly sitting mask causing more harm than good in the face of a shot is an even bigger deal. A goaltender can get crushed by his own cage, after all, if the mask slides the wrong way and then takes a puck.
The NHL does itself an incredible disservice by allowing plays to carry on, even when a goaltender has lost equipment in the crease.
In a perfect world, the play dies the minute a goaltender loses any non-stick piece of equipment, even in the instance of an immediate scoring chance when the lost equipment is a mask.
For now, though, that’s not policy – and for a league that claims they’re trying to cut down on injuries, that’s questionable at best.