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Getting to Know the NHL Rulebook: Intent to Blow

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Yes, in fact, there ARE legitimate cases for the infamous "Intent to Blow" rule.

Christian Petersen

NHL Official Rules 2013-14 (PDF)

Section 5 - Officials

Intent to Blow the Whistle

This isn't actually a separate section, but given how big an issue it is, it warrants its own heading (and its own post). First, let's consider the offending paragraph in Rule 31 - Referees, section 2 - Disputes:

As there is a human factor involved in blowing the whistle to stop play, the Referee may deem the play to be stopped slightly prior to the whistle actually being blown. The fact that the puck may come loose or cross the goal line prior to the sound of the whistle has no bearing if the Referee has ruled that the play had been stopped prior to this happening.

Unlike many prior (and future) provisions covered in this series, we have something that resembles a traceable history for this rule. The unfortunate thing is that it has to be told by Kerry Fraser:

The truth is the sound of the whistle used to be the determining factor in stopping play. That philosophy, along with the language in the rule, was changed following a controversial play that occurred in a playoff game between the New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques in 1995.

. . .

As play continued and Joe Sakic scored what would have been Quebec's third goal of the game, the referee saw that [Alexei] Kovalev still remained motionless on the ice. Referee [Andy] Van Hellemond blew his whistle and disallowed Sakic's goal. Kovalev tied the game with a goal in regulation and assisted on the winner in overtime for a Rangers victory.

The controversy resulted from the fact that Van Hellemond had blown his whistle after the puck entered the net. When questioned by Sr. VP of Hockey Operations Brian Burke following the game, it was the referee's sworn contention that he had blown the whistle due to Kovalev's apparent injury prior to the puck crossing the goal line. Once replay, with enhanced sound, proved the opposite to be true, the referee then stated that he had "intended" to blow the whistle and, in the delay to do so, the puck entered the net. Even though Van Hellemond was eventually fined by Burke for the details of the play, the rule was later changed to support Van Hellemond's contention that play should be stopped the instant a referee intends to blow his whistle.

I don't even know where to begin with this absurdity. I suppose the first thing to do is track down a video of the incident. The relevant play starts with Kovalev carrying the puck up the boards in the Nordiques' zone. Craig Wolanin then decides to give Kovalev a top-handed chop on the back with his hockey stick. Kovalev goes down in a heap, losing the puck in the process. Sakic wins the ensuing race for the loose puck after a Brian Leetch pinch attempt fails and then skates into the Rangers' zone before scoring on Glenn Healy, with Sergei Zubov almost as surprised as Sakic that he whiffed on the original shot attempt. The whistle is heard when the puck is already well past the goal line.

The places where Van Hellemond potentially screwed up are numerous. The first and most obvious is recited by Fraser himself: upon being shown audio-visual evidence that he did not in fact blow his whistle before Sakic scored, Van Hellemond changed his story from "I blew the whistle" to "I intended to blow the whistle." You know you can rely on testimony when it can be so easily changed upon being shown you're wrong. This contention sounds like a witness doubling back and saying, "Wait! I just remembered!" after his credibility's already taken a hit for inconsistency with reality.

There's a paragraph I left out from the quoted Fraser material, but only one sentence from it is necessary to make the next point:

With the Nordiques on the attack, referee Andy Van Hellemond skated past Kovalev and told him to get up off the ice; believing that the Ranger player was faking an injury.

Video evidence confirms that Van Hellemond zoomed past Kovalev quickly to catch up to the play going up ice. (This is back in the days of having just one referee.) There's almost no conceivable way for Van Hellemond to have known he blew the whistle before the puck crossed the line. If he stays focused on the play up ice which leads to Sakic's "goal," that means he's not looking at Kovalev or even aware that he's still down on the ice; after all, he did think he was faking an injury, so he must have gotten back up by now, right? Nothing in the Sakic play warrants a stoppage. If he turns around and sees Kovalev still down and decides to blow the whistle then, he's not looking at the Sakic play and has no idea when the puck crosses the line. He therefore cannot definitively state he blew the whistle before the puck crossed the line.

The replays don't focus on Van Hellemond's movements, so we're reduced to speculation about this instance of deciding when to blow the whistle, but the most likely conclusions all point to Van Hellemond having a brain fart and having no justification in the rulebook to blow the whistle when he (thought he) did. He could have blown the whistle immediately if he thought Kovalev was in immediate danger from a serious injury, but he thought Kovalev was faking it, so he didn't blow the play dead immediately. Even if it wasn't a "serious" injury but still one that warranted a stoppage of play, Van Hellemond still couldn't have blown the whistle because the Rangers never got possession of the puck after Kovalev lost it. Any other instance of blowing the whistle before the puck crossed the goal line would have been wholly unjustified. In other words, the entire "intent to blow" rule was created out of a moment of incompetence which cost Quebec a goal and potentially the game.

As dumbfounded as I was to discover that this moment of incompetence begat the "intent to blow" rule, I was also shocked to discover that there are actually legitimate instances where a referee can be justified in "intending" to stop play before he physically blows his whistle. Here are comments made to this post by The Copper and Blue's dawgbone98:

In the case of an NHL game, Team A takes a shot that hits the inside of the post (no goal), but the red light goes on. The referee waves it off as the Team B goaltender covers the puck. He goes to blow the whistle and Team A pokes at his glove and knocks it into the net before the whistle blows. In this case, the required hand motion for him to wave off the play prevented him from blowing his whistle in time.

Another hypothetical is if the referee happens to fall and on his way up can’t blow the whistle in time before a puck gets jammed in.

"Intent to blow" would be a much stronger and more legitimate rule if it could be re-written to include only those situations where the referee is physically prevented from putting the whistle to his mouth as opposed to him dawdling on putting it to his lips in anticipation of stopping the play. Also possible is the whistle malfunctioning, though newer whistle technology makes such malfunctioning less likely to occur. I consider these much more reasonable and defined applications of the "human factor" of the intent to blow rule than the motion of putting a whistle to one's lips and creating noise by blowing into it. Hockey referees can be more like basketball referees in certain instances where they already have the whistle to their mouth ready to stop play. Even if the referee still needs to physically bring his arm up, the amount of time needed to make such a motion is negligible, even for the pace of NHL action. If it's a close call between when the whistle sounds and the puck crosses the line (regardless of whether such controversies become video reviewable), perhaps we can create a "tie goes to the referee's decision" rule. Almost anything will be less frustrating than the current application of the rule and will have more justification behind it than a vague reference to "a human factor."

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This unruly post already reached a slightly absurd length for one rulebook post, so I separated the "intent to blow the whistle" rule out from the rest of the regular rulebook discussions. Rule by rule coverage will resume next time with referees.