Rules are not guidelines

April 10, 2012
A hockey player and ref shake hands after the game

The NHL Playoffs are about to begin and so too is the oft-heard refrain, “I hope the refs let them play.” Such is the oddity of the sport of hockey where the rules of the game are, to say the least, very elastic.

This raises the question of what is the purpose of the rules of hockey in the first place? Are they guidelines rather than rules? Are they rules to be applied only under certain circumstances and in certain situations? The confusion this causes, and make no mistake, it happens during the regular season as well, will be intensified during the playoffs. It is one of the reasons the NHL’s efforts to address the problem of brain injuries in their sport appears disingenuous at times.

The rules of any sport establish what is permissible and what is not. In most sports, a penalty is a penalty, whether it occurs in the first minute of the first regular season game or the last minute of the championship game, which in hockey’s case could be game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals.

When you allow the rules of a sport to be applied differently from situation to situation in the game of hockey, you remove the hard lines that prescribe the boundaries of the sport. This forces more and more of what happens in the game into the grey area. Coaches and players are then left to figure it out as the game progresses. This leads to a testing of where the limits are in each game, and coaches and players testing those limits. The respect for your opponent and the safety of all players gets severely compromised in the process.

While the hockey traditionalists are all for the ref putting his whistle in his pocket during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the true sports fan finds it offensive and confusing, feeling it places the sport of hockey into some nether land between entertainment wrestling and real sport.

Imagine the game of hockey played according to a set of rules agreed to in advance by all coaches and players, and consistently applied to both teams throughout the entire game. How bad could that be?