Getting to Know the NHL Rulebook: Abuse of Officials

Welcome to the next installment of our series where the WIIM authors read big, boring NHL documents so you don't have to. Today's rulebook post begins one of two sections on abuse of officials.

2013-14 NHL Official Rules (PDF)

Rule 39 - Abuse of Officials

It should really go without saying, but don't go after the officials. They are the arbiters of game flow, and while they make mistakes and screw up from time to time, there are much better mechanisms for getting calls right besides trying to convince a referee to reverse a decision he makes (which is "final"). The rulebook gives officials a lot of latitude to punish players, but from what I've seen, officials tend to be pretty lenient in enforcement compared to the powers the rules give them.

These rules are meant to protect both on- and off-ice officials.

39.1 General Description: Any and all club personnel (including players, coaches, and "non-playing persons") "shall not challenge or dispute" an official's decisions before, during, or after a game. I don't really understand how or why a player would challenge a ruling before the game even starts, but ok. In addition to complaining about calls, Club personnel are prohibited from displaying a broad array of "unsportsmanlike conduct."

39.2 Minor Penalty: Referees can assess a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for

(i) challenging or disputing an official's ruling.

(ii) using "obscene, profane or abusive language or gestures" against any official.

(iii) banging the boards or glass with any objects as a form of objection to an official's ruling.

(iv) or coming off the players' bench to "question or protest" an official's ruling.

39.3 Bench Minor Penalty: This subsection basically lets the referees punish the teams so that maybe they'll make sure everyone—coaches and team personnel—stays in line. Just as the (iii) provision above in 39.2, if a coach or non-playing personnel bang the glass or boards as a sign of disrespect for an official's decision, a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct is assessed. Like so, any other non-playing personnel using "obscene, profane or abusive language or gesture" causes the team to be punished. In addition, if they use "the name of any official coupled with any vociferous remarks," that's also a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. Note, "vociferous" is probably the most obscure vocabulary word I've read in the rules so far.

39.4 Misconduct Penalty: Generally, a player incurs a misconduct under this rule for being a higher degree of asshole to an official or for persisting in a lower level offense. In cases where players persist after having already been assessed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, the misconduct penalty is on top of the original minor if in the same stoppage. A misconduct is assessed to

(i) players persisting in foul language toward an official after already being assessed a minor or bench minor.

(ii) any player that intentionally keeps or shoots the puck away from an official trying to get it.

(iii) a player who persists in challenging an official's decision.

(iv) players that persists in banging the boards with their hockey sticks or other equipment.

(v) players entering or staying in the referee's crease while they're talking to the off-ice officials.

(vi) any player that throws equipment out of the playing area.

(vii) a player that persists in banging the glass to protest the Goal Judge's ruling.

39.5 Game Misconduct Penalty: Same principle as the misconduct: If a player persists in low level offenses after already being assessed a minor and a misconduct, he's given a game misconduct. A game misconduct is assessed to

(i) any player that still persists in challenging an official's decision.

(ii) any team member who persists in foul language toward an official after being assessed a bench minor. For coaches and other non-playing personnel, they go straight from the bench minor to the game misconduct; if such behavior occurs after the game, the team member is assessed a game misconduct without the need for a prior bench minor. Any such situation is reported to the Commissioner. There's a little discrepancy because the opening clause includes "player," but the provision in the main clause specifics "this Coach or non-playing person" and excludes "a player."

(iii) (This bullet point references Rule 40 - Physical Abuse of Officials and will be addressed there.)

(iv) any player that leaves the penalty box before his penalty expires so that he may challenge an official's ruling. On top of the game misconduct, said player is also suspended for his team's next three games, regular season and/or playoffs. This suspension does not replace more severe penalties if the player were to leave the penalty bench to start or partake in an altercation. The rules don't say whether that more severe suspension replaces the lesser one entirely or if the suspensions are cumulative.

(v) any player that throws equipment outside the playing area to protest an official's decision. The provision of applies to equipment thrown not in protest of an official's decision, I guess (though it makes me wonder why it was included in the section on Abuse of Officials). If a player commits this particular infraction of throwing equipment out of the rink as a form of protest, he's assessed both a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and the game misconduct.

(vi) any team member who throws or shoots objects toward an official but "does not come close to making any contact."

Penalties incurred under this rule are subject to Rule 28 - Supplemental Discipline.

39.6 Reports:

It is the responsibility of all game officials and all club officials to send a confidential report to the Commissioner setting out the full details concerning the use of obscene gestures or language by any player, Coach or non-playing Club personnel.

There's no provision that says all their reports have to be consolidated into one or if these entities send out separate reports. Likely, it's the latter. At this point, it's in the hands of the Commissioner to assess supplemental discipline.


I feel like it's implied, but I would like to see spelled out explicitly how the idea of "persisting" in a certain behavior works. Does a referee assess a misconduct or greater penalty if a player "persists" in protesting his decisions but for different calls? What about if a player uses foul language against him after every call he makes? Does a player get a pass and only get the minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct every time because he's cussing out the referee for a different call rather than the same one throughout the game?

I understand if these rules are written to severely dissuade players from persisting in arguing about calls during the same stoppage of play. I also have to think that every NHL player is smart enough to know when to quit if he's going to keep arguing with an official. Is Brendan Smith going to get two and ten just for arguing during the same stoppage of play? Will a referee assess a misconduct if Smith argues his first penalty call, gets an unsportsmanlike, and then argues his second penalty call later in the game? What about a game misconduct if he argues his third call against him even later in the game?

One more section (Physical Abuse of Officials) and then we start talking about actual rules infractions and penalties. Rejoice!