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Getting to Know the NHL Rulebook: Physical Fouls 2 - Checking from Behind, Clipping, and Elbowing

This latest look at physical offenses deals with some pretty uncommon fouls.

Jonathan Daniel

2013-14 NHL Official Rules (PDF)

Rule 43 - Checking from Behind

I've plainly asked here before in the comments on gamethreads if Checking from Behind was against the rules because I see it so often and yet it's never enforced. I see it enforced in NCAA hockey but never NHL hockey, and reading this rule kind of makes it clear to me why.

43.1 Checking from Behind:

A check from behind is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit, therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and contact is made on the back part of the body. When a player intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back, no penalty shall be assessed.

"Defenseless" can be another way of describing a player who isn't aware of an impending hit to his back. Through the eye test, I've noticed that most checks from behind usually are in the form of cross-checks which are their own penalty (Rule 59). In terms of checking from behind, any kind of check delivered to the back qualifies.

In the rules like boarding where there are provisions that give the referees leeway in assessing penalties if a player puts himself in a vulnerable position, the rules usually only say that "this balance must be considered by the referees." For example, if it's a major-level boarding offense because of the violence of the impact, the way the rule is written, the referee can dock it down to a minor or leave it uncalled if the victim put himself in a vulnerable position "immediately prior to or simultaneous with" the hit. By contrast, in this rule for checking from behind, the rules explicitly state that if a player tries to bait a checking from behind call, no penalty shall be assessed.

43.2 Minor Penalty: I think this provision explains why I don't see this rule enforced as often as it probably should in the NHL for how often players body check each other from behind. The NHL does not enforce a minor penalty for checking from behind. The minimum sentence is a major penalty. With the difference between minor and major penalties being as massive as it is, it's understandable if referees won't call checking from behind so often unless it's a really egregious check from behind.

43.3 Major Penalty: Checking from behind incurs a major penalty as its minimum sentence. Cross-checks, pushes, and charges from behind on a player "who is unable to protect or defend himself" lead to a major penalty. In a lot of cases, it's nearly impossible to protect yourself because you don't expect a hit from behind since no one has eyes in the back of their head. Or helmet, in this case.

43.4 Match Penalty: If the referee thinks a check from behind was an attempt to injure an opponent, he can assess a match penalty.

43.5 Game Misconduct:

A game misconduct penalty must be assessed anytime a major penalty is applied for checking from behind.

In other words, I take back what I said earlier: the minimum sentence for checking from behind as five and a game. No wonder referees never make this call.

43.6 Fines and Suspensions: Any player who incurs two game misconducts in a season or postseason under this rule and/ or Rule 41 Boarding will be suspended for one game. Any additional game misconducts trigger an automatic suspension, one game longer than the previous suspension.

The Commissioner has leeway to enforce Rule 28 Supplementary Discipline for violations of this rule.

Rule 44 - Clipping

44.1 Clipping: Clipping is a rather uncommon foul, and I'm glad it's that way. The most recent example I can think of goes back a few seasons, and the offender was indeed suspended for it.

Clipping means any hit that targets the knees or lower. Sometimes this ends up being a hip check gone awry. The rule further clarifies that body checks delivered at the knees are explicitly prohibited.

44.2 Minor Penalty: There is a provision where the referees can call a minor penalty for clipping. How such an infraction would manifest as a minor penalty when clipping is incredibly dangerous, I don't know.

44.3 Major Penalty: Whereas some penalties are assessed a major based on the degree of violence, the rulebook codifies that a major penalty be assessed if the clipped player suffers an injury as a result of the clip.

44.4 Match Penalty: Like most penalties, the referee has discretion to assess a match penalty if he believes the player intended to hurt his opponent by clipping him.

44.5 Game Misconduct Penalty: A major penalty for clipping carries with it an automatic game misconduct.

44.6 Fines and Suspensions: The rulebook does not outline specific monetary sanctions or suspensions for clipping, but Rule 28 Supplementary Discipline is always in play.

Rule 45 - Elbowing

45.1 Elbowing: You can find many places on the internet that will claim the elbow is the strongest or hardest part of the body. While I am skeptical of those claims, the bent elbow certainly can cause a lot of damage with the bone. The only issue in terms of hockey game play is that players do sport elbow pads under their jerseys, so if it's not the bone making direct contact, the usual hard shell plastic material that forms a cup over a player's elbows is also enough to do some pretty serious damage especially at high speed.

The rulebook does not specify a point of contact, only that there be contact with an elbow to an opponent for there to be a penalty called.

45.2 Minor Penalty: The referee can call a minor penalty for elbowing if he deems the contact worthy of just 2 minutes.

45.3 Major Penalty: Referee's discretion about the degree of violence can cause a major for elbowing to be assessed. If there is an injury to the face or head, the referee must assess a major penalty.

45.4 Match Penalty: The referee can call a match penalty for elbowing if he determines a player tried to injure an opponent.

45.5 Game Misconduct Penalty: A major penalty for elbowing which causes a head or face injury also leads to an automatic game misconduct.

45.6 Fines and Suspensions: When a game misconduct is assessed for elbowing, the offending player is automatically fined $100, once again at odds with Rule 23 and it's stipulation of a $200 fine. There is no accruement suspension for elbowing the way there is for Rule 41 Charging or Rule 43 Checking from Behind.

As always, Rule 28 Supplementary Discipline lies in wait should the NHL decide to use it to punish offenders.


There's a lot to look forward to over the next couple weeks. Fighting's up next. Not long after that, we'll take a look at the NHL's controversial Rule 48 Illegal Check to the Head.