Why you should care
Because it’s one way to solve the NHL’s low-scores scourge.
In the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, in a move better suited for the gridiron than the rink, Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop left the crease, wrapped his padded arms around Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar and attempted to tackle him to the ice.
Bishop was, obviously, called for a two-minute holding penalty. As per league rules, a skater was designated to serve time in the penalty box in Bishop’s place. In this case, forward Cedric Paquette and defenseman Jason Garrison were both on the bench, leaving the Lightning to try to kill off the 5-on-3 situation.
It’s all there in the NHL rulebook. Rule 27.1 states “a goalkeeper shall not be sent to the penalty bench for an offense which incurs a minor penalty, but instead, the minor penalty shall be served by another member of his team who was on the ice when the offense was committed.” Rule 27.2, for major penalties, and 27.3, for a game misconduct, say the same.
But if a goalie commits three majors or gets a game misconduct or a match penalty, he’s gone. What happens then? Per the rulebook, “His place will then be taken by a member of his own Club, or by a regular substitute goalkeeper who is available, and such player will be allowed the goalkeeper’s full equipment.”
But what would it have looked like if Bishop had gone to the bench to serve his own penalty? Yes, the thought of a goaltender wearing 50 pounds of equipment crammed into the box is hilarious. But seriously, what if we made NHL goalies serve their own penalties?
I went to the experts for some healthy skepticism, and I got it. “There’s zero chance that this would ever happen,” says Dale Arnold, Boston Bruins host on NESN. The biggest downside to the proposal is, of course, the risk of injury to skaters. “Let’s say Drew Doughty or Zdeno Chara is loading up at the blue line,” says Arnold. “Who the hell is going to want to get in front of that without the proper equipment?” Hockey historian Stan Fischler adds that the players’ union would be all over this proposed change.
This move could help solve the biggest problem facing the contemporary NHL: Scoring is too dang low.
But the idea is not entirely insane. After all, goalies used to serve their own penalties until the 1941–42 NHL season, leaving their teammates scrambling to guard the net in their absence. Remember, NHL teams weren’t required to carry two goalies until 1966. In 1939, the NHL changed the rule to allow whoever filled in the gap to use the goalie’s stick and gloves.
We’ve also seen this recently at the NCAA level, where Rule 28.2 does in fact state that goalies must serve their own major penalty or misconduct. In 2015, University of Maine goaltender Rob McGovern crammed himself into the box in a game against Boston College after being called for a two-minute roughing minor and a game misconduct during a fight.
Why not adopt this rule at the NHL level? It would keep goalies honest. NHL goaltenders racked up 190 penalty minutes (PIM) for their teammates in 2017–18, with Anaheim’s John Gibson leading the way with 16 minutes. Seven goalies had double-digit PIM.
More important, this move could help solve the biggest problem facing the contemporary NHL: Scoring is too dang low. As a lifelong NHL fanatic, I try to proselytize to my friends. But after countless watch parties where they try to stifle their yawns during another 2-1 game, for some reason, it’s not quite taking. NHL teams scored 132 empty-net goals in 2017–18 on 759 attempts. Granted, those situations involve a man advantage, but it’s enough to suggest pulling goalies for penalties could add to the scoreboard without resulting in a bloodbath for the offending team.
There are various ways this could play out. In the most basic scenario, the backup goaltender is required to come on in place of the penalized goaltender and kill the penalty. The league would most likely have to allow for a brief warmup to prevent injury.
That’s how it’s done in varsity lacrosse, from which the NHL could take a cue. The rules in that sport allow for goalies to transfer their equipment to another player (if there is no backup) when they serve a penalty, and teams are entitled to a one-minute goalie warmup. However, to get its starting goalie back in the game after serving the penalty, the offending team must call a timeout or wait until the next stoppage of play.
To take it one step further, rather than involve the backup goaltender, skaters could be required to defend an unattended net until the penalty is killed — no transference of equipment required. It would play out almost like an empty-net situation, minus the sixth player, and teams would be allowed a line change. To temper that admittedly insane proposal, we could restrict this situation to majors and game misconducts only, like in the NCAA.
In all likelihood, this alternate reality version of the NHL will never come to fruition. But in my mind, I’m enjoying occasional 10-8 games in which skaters try to outmaneuver one another to attack unguarded nets, while goalies watch from the box — secretly relishing how badass they feel.