Early in March, the Washington Capitals were holding team dinner at an upscale steakhouse near their southern California hotel, which had graciously tuned its televisions to show the Maple Leafs-Sabres game. At first everyone was only side-eying the action with faint interest—and, let’s be honest, can you blame them?—but pretty soon their attention was gripped by the next flashpoint in the NHL’s ongoing cause célèbre.
Midway through the third period, Buffalo winger Jason Pominville clobbered a slapshot from above the left faceoff circle that struck Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen in the chest and ricocheted away. As Andersen regrouped and squared to the rebound, center Johan Larsson knifed toward the puck. Attempting to slip past Anderson from behind, Larsson knocked skates with the netminder outside the crease and sent him sprawling backwards, leaving Larsson free to score for a 5-2 Sabres lead. “I saw it, I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s goalie interference, call’s coming back,’” says Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. “So black and white, so clear.”
Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock clearly agreed. He challenged the ruling and, upon hearing referee Marc Joannette announce that video video had confirmed the goal, offered a sarcastic laugh followed by some dismissive waves. “A f------ joke,” he barked, assuming our amateur lip-reading skills are accurate. The Washington players were stunned too, having come to an armchair consensus at their restaurant. “We were fully anticipating it to be overturned,” defenseman Brooks Orpik says. “But who knows?”
See, you are not alone. Goaltender interference has bamboozled everyone these days, hockey minds included. The replay process was initiated for the ‘15-16 season, alongside an offside option that sharply declined in usage when NHL general managers voted to start assessing minor penalties to teams for failed challenges. Goalie interference carries no such punishment. (At least not yet.) As such, it has felt like coaches are throwing darts at a moving map. “It’s the nature of making judgment calls subject to video review,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly says. “We knew in some respects we were opening Pandora’s box when we went down this road.”
The infraction is inherently subjective, its entry in the NHL rulebook (69.1) filled with ambiguous phrases like “impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely,” “ initiates intentional or deliberate contact,” and “made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.” Plenty other minor penalties—roughing, holding, embellishment, etc.—require an in-the-moment referee’s interpretation too, but those only result in power plays. With goalie interference, a crooked number is always at stake. Naturally everyone has maintained total calm and rationality, and will no doubt continue doing so when goalie interference invariably affects an upcoming Stanley Cup playoff series.
“Pffft,” says Devils goalie Keith Kincaid. “No comment. I don’t know what’s going on with it.”
Any semblance of progress has required baby steps. Faced with growing criticism among its coaches and general managers—not to mention Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, both of whom displayed some superstar-level sass in the wake of unfavorable challenges—the NHL issued a memo to officials around the 2018 All-Star Game in late January, reminding them of “the spirit and letter of the rule,” as Daly says. “We felt like in certain cases some of the officials were looking too hard for video evidence to overturn their original judgment. You’re only supposed to overturn your call on the ice if there’s conclusive evidence and an egregious error in the case of goalie interference.”
Those adjectives are doing a lot of work, which was pretty much what Edmonton’s Cam Talbot meant telling reporters that the lack of standard was “f----- ridiculous” on Feb. 17. The Toronto-Buffalo hubbub happened a little more than two weeks later, though karma came around to the Maple Leafs when officials negated Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin’s goal—and issued a minor penalty to boot—because his hip hit Andersen’s head in the crease. Unlike Babcock, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan did not do any laughing.
As the controversy crescendoed, the general managers convened at their annual spring meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., and approved a tweak the video review rule, which the NHL/NHLPA competition committee subsequently approved. Instead of on-ice officials receiving final authority, the decision would come from hockey operations headquarters in Toronto, where league executive Colin Campbell’s staff monitors games on massive flatscreens. (Director of officiating Stephen Walkom will also be present every night for the Stanley Cup playoffs.)
“We think that having a smaller group of people, who watch all the games and see all the goals every night and have to make that call, can add a level of consistency,” Daly says. His boss, commissioner Gary Bettman, has tamped down the extent of the problem, noting from Boca Raton that only a half-dozen of 170 challenges had resulted in disagreement between on-ice officials and the NHL “Situation Room.” Then again, it was bad enough to rewrite the rulebook midseason. “We’re still not going to agree all the time,” Devils GM Ray Shero says. “That’s how it is. But at least on this, I think Toronto’s going to call the goalie interference no different than they call high-sticking or a kicking motion of the puck. To me, it’s all one-stop shopping now.”
Further change is all but certain after the playoffs ends, but what? A recommendation to penalize failed goalie reviews like offside ones, probably. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan wants “more clarification on parts of the rules, which they haven’t addressed yet,” such the difference between incidental contact between a puck-carrier and passerby. One NHL goalie coach suggested that challengers should have to specify where the interference occurred, similar to requests for measuring potential illegal sticks would require an exact reason like curvature or blade thickness. Holtby wishes that the NHL would hire a recently retired goalie to provide input from Toronto, suggesting Sabres broadcaster Martin Biron.
“All of our game is about which way our edges are facing, which way you’re going to push,” Holtby says. “If you get hit straight on, you can bounce back, your balance is set, your edges are still underneath you. But if someone comes by, pulls your stick, twists your blocker, you’re screwed. I think if you had someone thinking the same way as goalies are, you’d have a little bit more of an idea when what’s going to be challenged, what to look for.”
“I feel like the best scenario would be if I could watch it on my couch in my basement and I had a red phone that could ring once in a while,” Biron says. “I think that would be better.”
Ultimately, this is all about optics as much as refining the definition of a nebulous rule. There will never be black-and-white goalie interference—the only real solution is blue and white, as in the outdated skate-in-the-crease rule of Brett Hull fame that “everyone hated,” Orpik says—but at least the league can try to paint the same shade of gray. In the short time since reviews were formally centralized on March 27, Daly reports that feedback has been limited but “generally positive.”
He knows that no longer includes the entire city of Nashville.