Linesmen Can't Blow The Whistle On Clowe -- Is It Time For A Rule Change?

As every hockey fan who's awake on planet Earth by now probably knows, Sharks forward Ryane Clowe prevented a possible scoring chance by the Kings in a tie game late in the third period last night. While still on the bench, he leaned over the boards and used his stick to bat the puck away from Jarret Stoll. No ref made the call.

The Kings were on a power play at the time. Had Clowe been detected, the Kings would have had a two man advantage for half of a minute, and finished out most of the period in a crucial game with the man advantage. Instead, the game went on to overtime and then a shootout, possibly affecting the race for the division title.

While our fans are furious that four men in stripes missed such a blatant penalty--after all, someone should be watching the puck, right?--it turns out that the linesmen can't make that call.

I think it's time to change that rule. Here are my thoughts on the subject. Hopefully, this rundown will also answer any of your questions.

Let's go to the video:


Why was that interference?

As reader Flubber McGee pointed out last night in the comments, what Clowe did clearly falls under interference.

Rule 56.2 Interference — Minor Penalties

A minor penalty shall be imposed on any identifiable player on the players’ bench or penalty bench who, by means of his stick or his body, interferes with the movements of the puck or any opponent on the ice during the progress of the play. In addition, should 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 NHL's official position is that:

  • a) The referees didn't see the play
  • b) The linesmen may have seen it, but weren't allowed to call it.

Thus, everyone has a handy excuse for not blowing the whistle on one of the most obvious penalties of the year.

What can the linesmen do?

Linesmen can only stop play and report to the referee for the following reasons:

  • (i) There are too many men on the ice,
  • (ii) Articles are thrown on the ice from the players’ bench or penalty bench,
  • (iii) When team personnel interfere with a game official
  • (iv) When a player who has lost or broken his stick receives one illegally

By a strange quirk of the rules, a linesman would have been able to blow the whistle if Clowe had thrown his stick at the puck instead of reaching over to knock it away. But he didn't. So Clowe's interference goes uncalled.

Some may ask: why doesn't this count as "Too many men on the ice"? After all, an extra man is involved in the play, and the Sharks clearly benefited from it. But the answer is no. Clowe doesn’t have a foot on the ice, so you’re left with funny explanations like: "Well, he did play the puck, but he only used the top half of his body." It’s technically correct, and thoroughly ridiculous.

To sum up: the linesmen can stop Clowe from helping his teammates by stepping over the boards to touch the puck, but they can't stop him from preventing a scoring chance in this manner. That seems bizarre.

I confess, I'd never seen anyone do that in an NHL game before, and wasn't aware it was a minor.

I think linesmen should be able to help out on these calls. It’s time for a rule change.

Will the NHL consider changes?

Right now, I’m thinking "probably not." I can’t find anyone calling for change in the media, either. They seem to be too busy laughing at the whole thing.

NHL.com listed it prominently as one of Thursday night’s best highlights, trotting out one of its signature puns ("Stoll-en goods"). Major figures in the hockey media like Elliotte Friedman also got a good chuckle out of it this morning. Sure it was illegal, but by gosh, wasn’t that funny?

A lot of fans around the league are wondering "How could this happen?" Meanwhile, Darren Dreger is gushing about Clowe’s bench trickery because he’s so darn competitive: "Anything to win."

I can see how this is amusing to them—it’s a stunning and highly unusual way to break up a play, after all—but I’d rather have the league and the media focus on what they can do to deter such behavior instead of celebrating it.

Doing nothing to discourage this in the future makes the whole league look bad. It’s making headlines this morning even among non-hockey fans, because it violates a pretty basic expectation in sports: you only expect the players in the game to be able to affect the outcome.

When you explain to a football fan that it's only a minor penalty which can't even earn a fine, the response is: "Why?"

I don’t want to see this happen in the playoffs, do you?

Clowe was lucky enough to get away with this scot-free. He helped his team, too. Now that everyone is more aware it’s just a minor penalty—and one that isn’t subject to supplementary discipline—others might follow suit. It’s like knocking the net off its moorings to prevent a goal--just a little more unexpected and dangerous.

Would another set of officials ever miss such a blatant act like this again? It seems unlikely, but if a player spies that two refs are looking in the other direction, it could happen. There could also be some cases where a team might think a mere minor would be worth it.

Imagine a star player like Claude Giroux or Sidney Crosby out on a clear breakaway, skating close to the benches. No defender on the ice is anywhere close enough to haul him down. What if some fourth liner on the opposing bench reaches out and hacks at the puck? A two minute penalty is better than a goal against. It could put the guy chasing the puck at risk, but who cares. In the playoffs, the stakes will never be higher. Anything to win, right, Dreger?

Is that something we really want to see again?

The NHL should be looking to deter this now that this issue is in the spotlight. The best way to do that is not by making it possible in the future to slap a player with a paltry $2,500 fine after the fact. Strengthen the rules. Permit linesmen to call it. Figure out a way to make it cost the team badly.

The NFL doesn’t seem to have a problem cracking down on interference from the sidelines. Why can’t the NHL?

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