In the beginning, when hockey was void and without form, and darkness was upon the face of the ice, there were no penalties. In the very first rules of the game, from 1877, the stated punishment for any infraction is the play whistled dead and a fresh bully (faceoff-ish thing). By the 1890s, hockey had developed a three-strikes policy for physical fouls, with two referee’s warnings followed by expulsion from the game. In 1904, we find the first evidence of modern penalties, which could be given in two, three, or five-minute increments according to the opinion of the officials, but also allowed a team to put in a substitute for the offending player. In 1914, under NHA rules, all penalties were increased to five minutes and an obligatory fine introduced as a gesture towards further deterrence, but punishments were still thought of as an individual thing- the bad man had to do his time, but his team suffered nothing.
It was the NHL that invented the power play. When the new League formed out of the shattered ruins of the NHA in 1917, it reduced penalties to three minutes but forbade substitutions. For the first time in the history of the game, teams were forced to pay a price for their players’ rule violations. Four years later, they shortened the obligatory time of a minor penalty to the familiar two minutes, and two years after that, they added the five-minute and ten-minute penalties to the officiating toolbox.
This punitive structure stood for thirty-three years. The offenses changed- during this time there was, perhaps not surprisingly, a massive surge in player-on-referee violence and a subsequent crackdown on such- but the hierarchy of punishments was largely unchanged. For the entirety of the thirties and forties and half of the fifties, all penalties were served in their entirety, the offender’s team playing short-handed until his time ran out, no matter how many goals they gave up in the interim. It made for some dire situations, particularly for truculent teams in the late minutes of playoff games, but seems to have been overwhelmingly considered a just and reasonable system.
Until 1955. In 1955, the Montreal Canadiens were on the verge of their first dynasty. The late 1940s had been the time of the Maple Leafs, and the early 1950s belonged to the Red Wings, but the rest of the decade would be Montreal’s exclusively, and, like an omen of things to come, the 1955 Canadiens’ power play chewed up the League. Since the founding of the NHL, it had always been possible to score multiple goals on a single penalty, but never had any team exploited the rule so dramatically. On November 5th, Jean Beliveau scored a hat trick against the Bruins on one PP, and through the month of December the Habs added four more incidents of two-goal power plays. By the end of the season, Montreal had scored nine extra PP goals. No other team came close, and the Canadiens themselves seemed particularly impervious to being scored against more than once per penalty. That summer, at the annual Board of Governor’s meeting, the NHL passed a new rule stating that penalties would end when the advantaged team scored a goal. The rule passed with five teams for and one against. Ironically, to this day it is sometimes affectionately referred to as “The Canadiens Rule”, in honor of the only team who didn’t want it.
Now, while the Canadiens in 1955-56 were doubtless a powerhouse team with an extraordinary power play, this is nevertheless a capricious reason for changing the penalty structure of the League, and just goes to show that the hockey’s tendency to overreact to weird little spikes of luck is a very old tendency indeed. In fact, we find ourselves in a remarkably similar situation today: after a few rounds of playoffs featuring a high proportion of shot-blocking, there are more and more people convinced that shot-blocking has become a scourge of the game which must be banned. When it comes to player safety, of course, hockey will permit something to be a problem for a decade without resorting to major rule changes, but when some team develops a competitive advantage that opponents find frustrating, the League cannot wait to stamp that shit out.
But I digress. The fact is that now, as ever, hockey faces two perennial problems: violence and defense. No matter what the era, no matter what the circumstance, the tactical pressures of the game push it in the direction of more aggressive physical contact and more stifling defensive strategies. Half the coaching innovations in the history of the game have been based on these principles, and half the rules on the books have been put there to prevent them. North American hockey wants to be a bloody, boring game. It is only the constant tinkering of the NHL that forces it to be the cleaner, faster sport we dream of. And, fortunately, right now there is one change the NHL could make that would accomplish both ends at once, that would simultaneously deter headshots and increase offense.
The NHL needs to remove the Canadiens Rule. All minor penalties should be served for the full two minutes, no matter how many goals are scored.
Yes, I’m serious. Yes, really. Stop laughing. STOP. Okay, I’ll wait.
Are you done now? Chuckles over? Good. Now think about it: as I mentioned last Monday, on-ice punishments have several advantages over supplementary discipline as far as their ability to deter undesirable behavior. They’re immediate, they have uniform impact no matter what the status of the offending player, and they hit the entire team where it hurts most, in their chances of winning. To a coach, who sets the style and the tone of the game his team plays, who determines more than anyone else the extent and manner in which his team uses violence to achieve their aims, the risk of playing large chunks of time short-handed is far more threatening than the possibility of some guy getting a couple games suspension later on. If a single penalty lasts the whole two minutes and could easily result in multiple goals against? If it’s going to put that much more stress on his penalty-killers and goalie, if it’s going to guarantee that much more time per game with almost no opportunity for offense? Then coaches are going to think very hard indeed about whether the ‘intimidation’ factor of a charge or high hit is really worth all that much. Full two-minute penalties would put far more pressure on teams to discipline their roster internally and preemptively than any other punitive measure, and as such would be a far better deterrent than supplementary discipline.
Moreover, more power play time encourages offense in exactly the ways hockey people perennially claim they want. More power play time means more goals and more scoring chances, it means more space for great players to set up great plays. It means more tense moments, more drama, more frustrated goalies banging their sticks on the posts and hiding shamed faces in their water bottles. It makes offensive specialists worth more and will almost certainly boost their ice time, but as it also provides more opportunities for second-unit players, and will probably also add to the scoring depth of the League. And, in a gesture towards cosmic justice, it gives the team that was offended-against a greater opportunity to tear the jugular out of their opponents- on the scoreboard, where it really kills.
There would, of course, be problems. There will be problems with any rule change. Full two-minute penalties would encourage diving, and refs would likely respond with an increase in concurrent minors against both an actual tripper and his embellishing victim. It would increase the potential impact of an overzealous call, and might result in a trend towards more conservative enforcement of the restraining fouls. It would require the abolition of the stupid puck-over-glass delay of game penalty. And it would shift the balance of the game in the direction of special teams; a deep-level change which would alter the character of games, although not in a wholly unwelcome way.
But reverting to the pre-1956 penalty customs would not be any sillier than penalizing shot blocking or adding more lines to the ice or any of the other propositions that people routinely put forward to increase offense. In a game where knowledgeable hockey folk still call for somehow ‘banning’ the trap, as if it were as easy to outlaw an entire school of hockey-thought as it is to call a high stick, it is actually a very simple, elegant, and effective solution to common problems. And it has the charm of being authentic to the sport, an honest part of the heritage of hockey rather than something borrowed from the experiments of the NBA. At the very least, it needs to be considered; the oldest solution to all the newest problems.
For more on the 1955-56 Canadiens and their famous power play, check out this Hockey Prospectus article by Ian Fyffe. Additional information on the penalty structure of early hockey was gleaned from The Annotated Rules of Hockey, by James Duplacey. Also, check out this 2008 piece from the Copper & Blue on the NHL’s history of avoiding the man-advantage scenarios it created.