When a hockey referee blows the whistle to enforce some of the game’s weirdest, most obscure rules, even the most experienced players and fans can be left scratching their heads, awaiting an explanation from an officiating expert. Here are five such rules—straight out of the NHL Official Rules guidebook—that only true hockey geeks may be familiar with.
1. You can’t play the puck from the penalty box.
NHL Rule 56.2: [S]hould a player about to come onto the ice, play the puck while one or both skates are still on the players’ or penalty bench, a minor penalty for interference shall be assessed.
The vast majority of the time, a player coming out of the penalty box simply joins the action or skates to the bench. Infrequently, the player exiting the box will be in a position to accept an outlet pass from a teammate, creating an exciting breakaway that represents an instant change of fortune, turning a penalty kill into a one-on-one with the opposing goalie. But even rarer are those instances in which the puck arrives by chance in front of the penalty box just as the player is in the process of getting back on the ice. In this case, the player cannot touch the puck if one or both feet are still in the penalty box. If he does, it’s immediately right back in the ol’ “sin bin” for another two minutes.
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know this one. In January 2016, all-star Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks made this mistake, and when the whistle blew, he asked the referee, “What’s the call?”
2. Once you pick up the goalie’s stick, you can’t play the puck until you hand off the stick.
NHL Rule 10.5: A player who participates in the play, who checks or who intentionally prevents the movement of an opponent, or who intentionally plays the puck while carrying two sticks (including while taking a replacement stick to his goalkeeper) shall incur a minor penalty under this rule.
A goalie who has dropped his stick is in a vulnerable position, lacking one of his important tools for stopping shots. In this case, one of his teammates will often pick up the goalkeeper’s stick and hand it back when the opportunity arises. For that brief moment when this player is holding the two sticks, however, he cannot attempt to play the puck or interfere with a member of the other team. The reason? It’s illegal to play with two sticks—even if one of them is a goalie stick.
In fact, playing while holding the goalie stick would normally violate another rule governing the dimensions of a player’s stick, but that rule is waived in this specific situation. If the player holding the goalie stick and his own does get involved in the play, it’s two minutes in the box.
3. A hand-pass is legal in your own zone.
NHL Rule 79.2 Play will not be stopped for any hand pass by players in their own defending zone.
A whistle stopping play for a hand pass is a common occurrence—often happening several times in a single game—and should be familiar to even casual fans. But did you know that a hand pass is perfectly legal in the defensive zone? As long as both the player making the hand pass and the player receiving the pass are in their own zone, play can continue. Should a player in his defensive zone make a hand pass to a teammate on the other side of the blue line, however, the play will be blown dead.
4. You can score a goal without the puck ever going into the net.
NHL Rule 68.4: If, when the opposing goalkeeper has been removed from the ice, a player of the side attacking the unattended goal is interfered with in the neutral or attacking zone by a player who shall have entered the game illegally, the Referee shall immediately award a goal to the non-offending team.
Here’s another one that addresses an exceedingly rare situation. In the last couple of minutes of a game, a team may pull its goalkeeper out of the crease and add another attacker. During that time when the keeper is off the ice, if a player illegally enters the ice—via an illegal substitution, an early exit from the penalty box, or a too-many-men-on-the-ice infraction—to stop a breakaway by the opposing team, the referee may award a goal to the attacking team.
Here’s an example: Team A has pulled its goalkeeper and added an extra attacker. However, a player on Team B is able to poke the puck past the defender at the point and begins racing toward the empty net. A player from Team A comes off the bench too early (before the player he’s substituting for is within five feet of the bench), and breaks up the play. The referee awards a goal to Team B, even though the attacking player hasn’t even shot the puck toward the goal.
5. A goalie cannot have black tape on the knob of his or her stick.
NHL Rule 10.2: In the case of a goalkeeper’s stick, there shall be a knob of white tape or some other protective material approved by the League.
The rules governing stick measurements for goalkeepers and other players take up three-and-a-half pages of the NHL rule book, and the most common infractions involve the curvature of the blade. But one little-known requirement is that the knob of the goalie’s stick be covered by white tape—or tape of a color approved by the league. When you think about it, the reason is pretty obvious: Were the knob of the goalie’s stick covered in black tape, it could be confused for the puck during a scramble around the net. The goal judge and the other officials must have a clear sense of where the puck is to accurately determine whether a goal has been scored, so to avoid confusion, there can be no black tape on the knob of the goalkeeper’s stick.
The NHL Official Rules guidebook for 2018-19 is a whopping 218 pages long and addresses virtually every situation that could arise in a hockey game, however unlikely. Consequently, some rules are seldom enforced because the situations they govern rarely occur. These five are just a few of the weird rules referees must keep in the back of their minds during every game—for the rare instances when odd things do happen. To the uninitiated, even conventional rules of hockey—such as those governing offside, icing, and substitution—can seem inscrutable, although understanding these officiating decisions is second nature to seasoned fans and players. But it’s astonishing how well most NHL officials can spot these obscure infractions—which can elude even players who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. If you watch hockey for a decade, you may not see one of these infractions called, but if you do, you’ll be prepared to wow your friends and teammates with your knowledge.