Jean Beliveau, the man the truncated minor penalty was invented to stop. It didn't work.

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.

Comments (25)

  1. I dont think this is a comical idea at all – I’ve supported this since the beginning of the dead puck era. But I dont think you can do this without a complimentary change to improve and monitor officiating. Publish officiating standards publicly, Punish officials who get it “wrong”. Explain why calls made/not made were right/wrong. Allow teams 3 “challenges” per game – 1 per period. The league hires a third referee, independent of the teams, sitting in the penalty box, who reviews the challenges. Etc.

  2. I think this is a very elegant solution to bringing in more discipline and offense into the game. It isn’t a sweeping change, it won’t force a drastic recalibration for players, coaches or refs. Send this to Camp Shanny! This is an idea who’s time has come…back.

  3. Well, as an official myself, and having earned the title of “Worst Ref Ever” (trust me, I have references) I am totally with this post. I like the idea.

    Now, with that said, I’d like to speak to PopsTwitTar’s comment. With hockey moving at the speed that it is, I completely understand how two officials can miss a call or not make a call. There’s also a lot of game management that goes into officiating. I’m not going into a whole lot of detail here but there’s a lot more going on with officials and players interacting on the ice than meets the eye.

    I also know that there’s a supervisor official for every pro hockey game and that supervisor discusses things that officials miss or do after every game. It actually helps officials but it can still only go so far. There still needs to be supplemental discipline involved. Even if an official makes the right call, the league should be able to step in and say “Hey, that was way out of line, enjoy an extra couple days off and a fine.”

    All in all, great post.

  4. yes, and i suggest when a penalty shot is missed that the player who fouled serve two minutes.

  5. About 80% of two-minute penalties end without the advantaged team scoring a single goal so this would really only be a small change. But I’m in favor of it.

    But to me the offsides rule is the biggest impediment to scoring, and let me just say this and let it sink in – There is nothing sacrosanct about the current offsides rule. It is what allows the trap to work. It makes players slow down and stop at the blue line. It allows defenders to predict exactly when the headman will receive a pass so that he doesn’t go offsides. If you want more offense, its the offsides rule that needs to change.

  6. I think that a change that should be brought back is that offsetting penalties shouldn’t cancel each other out. Hockey was more fun with Gretzky scoring all of those 3-on-3 goals. Now it’s very hard to get a 3-on-3. Bring back no offsetting penalties.

  7. I’d walk it back slightly more slowly – firstly, by eliminating the goddamn stupid “Oilers Rule” and reducing teams to 4-on-4 whenever possible.

    If that doesn’t work, then we go back to reversing the Montreal rule.

  8. A friend of mine, who’s not that big of a fan, was watching a game with me and asked, “Why is icing allowed when a team’s shorthanded.” I kinda laughed, then, the more I thought about it, didn’t really have an answer that satisfied myself, let alone him. Think about it yourself. Icing’s illegal until your team does something else illegal, and then it’s OK. Dump it down, change, then set up with fresh players at the blue line again and wait for the rush. Change that rule and there’d be no changes for the killers, and the faceoff is right back in your own zone. I think after having the same killers out there for a lot longer would not only give up more goals, but would scare teams into not taking as many penalties in the first place. I don’t know. Maybe.

    • This is also a no-brainer – there’s no reason a shorthanded team should get a break of any kind. Same with hand passes in the D-zone.

      Also, there’s little things that can make a difference here and there. When a penalty carries over into the next period, why not have the opening faceoff in the short-handed team’s zone?

  9. Or make it like lacrosse, some penalties are ‘locked in’ and are nor released upon a goal, others (more minor, minor infractions) can be released upon a goal.

  10. Excellent idea!. A return to tradition that would open up the game and provide respect to the penalty process. I could see teams building their rosters around this change meaning more skill in the league. I also like the repeal of the Oilers rules and bring back 3 on 3s which was pretty exciting hockey. Ellen, you need to get yourself down to league HQ in New York and get this done.

  11. “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.”

    I think this is a pretty poor justification for the proposed change. Yes, everybody else is coming up with stupid ideas, and they make this idea look very reasonable by contrast, but that doesn’t make it good. This sentence basically says, “well, it may not be a great idea, and it may even be stupid, but since it’s not as stupid as all these other ones it’s palatable.” Can’t they all be bad ideas?

    I understand the article and the arguments for it. But, as you noted, “it would shift the balance of the game in the direction of special teams.” I think we all prefer to watch teams play mostly 5-on-5 hockey. I think just about everyone was getting angrier and angrier a few years ago when referees became overzealous and the NHL briefly became the Powerplay Circus. We don’t need to go back to that.

    Whatever the current problems — shot blocking, lack of offense, physical violence, etc. — they will neither be ameliorated nor served by this rule change.

    And all the people who think it might be a good idea? You’ll continue to think so…until your team is ousted from the playoffs because of a blown call; a call that led to the opposing team scoring four goals in two minutes with only 5:28 left in the third period, leading to you going from a 3-0 surplus to a 4-3 loss. Yup, you were up three nothing with just five minutes to go until you made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and now your team is going golfing instead because of one blown call coupled with one bad kill.

    And that, my friends, is something none of us ever want to experience.

    (also, regarding something noted in the comments: refereeing in this league has been pretty bad the last few seasons, and this rule change would do nothing but exacerbate the bad influence of blown calls. Nobody wants to see blown calls have an even more detrimental effect than they already have)

    • I think you saying “I think” to begin every sentence is a poor justification for whatever you’re suggesting. 5 on 5 hockey is great, but clutch and grab isn’t. When the referees became ‘overzealous’ after the lockout, its because they were trying to eliminate that style of play. Sure, while they’ve laxed a bit since, the players in general are also doing less of it than they were before, and at least in my opinion (I won’t speak for the general public as apparently you are the voice for them) it’s made for a better on-ice product. I don’t know where you’re getting all of the rock solid “Refereeing has been pretty bad over the last few years” statistics, but I’d love to see some sources. Blown calls happen, it’s a fast game, and they usually happen both ways. I don’t think the refs have ever really been better or worse as a group. They’re refs.

      As for your absurd playoff elimination example, if my team gives up 4 goals in a two minute span, they don’t deserve to win a playoff series anyway.

  12. I don’t mind the idea, but I don’t think it actually solves the issue it purports to solve. The league wants more offense, but powerplay offense isn’t particularly exciting offense, for the most part.

    What the league actually wants (or should want) is more exciting hockey. Goals on their own are not inherently exciting; open, freewheeling, back-and-forth, even-strength hockey is exciting. Scoring chances are exciting.

    Increasing powerplays, making minors last the full 2 minutes…those are not bad changes, but watching a team pass the puck around the offensive zone while their opponents do nothing more than get in shooting lanes isn’t particularly exciting. Watching just one team trying to score a goal while the other team only tries to prevent scoring isn’t exciting. Watching both teams go back and forth with scoring chance after scoring chance: that’s exciting.

    • Personally, I find a good PP pretty exciting. The years when the Canadiens were topping the League in PP rates, it was fun to watch them go to work. Yes, it lacks something in speed, but it makes up for that something in how clearly you can see plays develop. Moreover, it leads to flurries of chances in front and shorthanded breakaways, which are both dramatic.

      I take your point that fast-paced, wide-open, end-to-end hockey is the most exciting, but it’s also against the natural predispositions of the game. Across eras and rule changes, the tendency of NHL hockey is always to grow towards defensive strategies and systems. It pulls that way on its own, through the choices of teams and coaches, and it’s very difficult to make rules that stop that. Defense always catches up.

    • Dan I think you’re missing the point a little – the idea is that we need to make PPs more meaningful. If we can find a way to do that – we can make teams at 5-on-5 be more concerned with taking a penalty. Doing so should open up the ice and create just a little more freedom for the offensive players to operate.

  13. Since this thread has gotten a little off-track and switched to “how-to-generate-more-offense”, I’d like to say, as always: goalie pads.
    They are too big. They allow goalies to make too many saves when they don’t even see the puck.

    They are designed too well. Not for safety, but for stopping pucks. There is no five-hole any more.

    Cops wear kevlar vests that stop bullets under their shirts. I don’t know why a goalie needs to wear two bulky chest protecters over each other, or have leg pads that go up over their crotch.

    • Hey Rick,

      Spoken like someone who has never played goalie.

      The overall width of the leg pads is no larger than it ever was in the past (11 inches). As for the rest of the gear… well, you stand in front of a net and let the best shooters in the world blast slapshots at you from varying distances and then see how much padding you’d like to have.

      If you’re going to reduce the size of goalie pads, then skaters need to go back to all-wood, no-curve sticks.

  14. @ RIck – this is what it looks like after you’ve been shot while wearing level III soft body armor:

    http://depletedcranium.com/l3chestinjury.jpg

    Yes, it stops the bullet, but it doesn’t prevent injury. The whole point behind these “too-well designed” goalie pads is to stop both the puck AND the injury.

    When minor hockey players are going and buying ridiculously expensive sticks that allow them to shoot 70-80mph+, you can’t expect the goalies to sit there wearing couch pillow leg pads and colander helmets. So if you want goalies to go back to Road Warrior-esque pads, take away the high-tech puck flingers shooters are using these days, too.

    • I think you misunderstood my point. I am not advocating that goalies immediately switch to Kevlar vests. I am saying that goalie pads are unnecessarily large, and I believe the increase in size (for example the height of the pads) has more to do with stopping pucks than prtoecting goalies.

      Let’s say the NHL mandated that by 2016 goalie pads be 10.5 inches wide, go no higher than 3 inches above the knee (calm down) and that all other gear be form fitting. Don’t you think that pad companies could design pads that combine harder materials with soft materials to protect the goalies while still forcing them to make decisions on shots rather than lay down?

      So no, I don’t want to hurt goalies, I just want them to have to skate, see the puck to stop it, and make choices on breakways.
      (and yes, this is only an issue at top-level competitive hockey, I’ve been in plenty of 10-8 beer league games to know that)

      The width of the pads are not really the issue. The height definitely is.

  15. But going back to the actual subject of the article – there are a lot of good ideas being thrown about here. I wonder – is there precedent of a group of passionate, knowledgeable fans presenting a case to the League for improvement of the game? I wonder how the League would handle such a thing?

    • I like Ryan’s idea. Perhaps Ellen could use her column to collect feedback. She could post a summary of the rule change and reasoning behind it and then attach a poll that would collect votes for and against. This group of commenters could use our email and Twitter contacts to spread the word and get people to weigh in on the subject. With a little effort we could get the NHL and NHLPA to take notice.

      I’m pretty good at assigning work to others :-)

  16. Here’s an idea:

    How about actually punishing the goalie whenever he takes a penalty? I’m not entirely sure how to best go about this, but I’m thinking if there was a penalty shot involved, it would solve that “exciting hockey != more PPs” thing discussed above.

    I’ll mull it over some more, just to see how it might actually work.

  17. I am continually searching online for articles that can facilitate me. Thanks!

  18. You are not only absolutely RIGHT, but I have been saying that for YEARS.
    IF not… then at LEAST the team with the penalty should NOT be allowed to ice the puck…
    WHY would they be allowed to do that while in regular play, they cannot do it?
    You take away one player, BUT you give them the icing advantage.. it’s like NOT giving a penalty then…
    The two even out…
    Nonsense…
    So bring back the REAL FULL 2 minutes penalty and NO possibility of icing….
    Maybe guys will think twice before doing stupid things

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