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What does Sean Avery have in common with Rob Ray, Trent Tucker, and Roy Williams?

In a reaction to Avery’s actions in a game, which were completely within the rules at the time, the NHL has changed its rules! As reported at ESPN.com, the NHL has issued a directive that changes the interpretation of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, effective immediately, to include the following situation:

“When an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play.”

Allow me to put on my goalie pads for a second and say that if I was in net, I would have punched Avery directly in the face. This rule is probably an attempt by the NHL to prevent actions that they don’t approve of from becoming widespread.

Now, let me put on my lawyer pants for a second. The key phrase in that directive is “for the purpose of improperly interfering with.” That simple phrase says 2 important things. 1) The refs now have to discern a purpose from the player’s actions before they can call a penalty, and 2) the NHL thought Avery’s actions were “improper”.

In general, I am opposed to additional rule-making. Is it the job of the league office to arbitrarily decide what is the proper way to play hockey? As the rule says, if a player is face-guarding the goalie, he is not in position to make a play. Therefore, players have a choice. On the one hand, they can face-guard and distract the goalie (and perhaps this distraction is more effective than a traditional screen). But in doing so, he takes himself out of the play. Given this choice, is the rule really necessary?

The NHL is essentially saying that they think Avery’s creative play was extremely effective — so effective that it would catch on in the NHL if no rule was enacted — and would alter the product on the ice. I don’t think many players would opt for that kind of positioning, but if a player wants to sacrifice position, it should be his choice.

Hockey is a beautiful sport because of its fluidity. Unlike basketball and football, the referees in hockey play a minimal role in the game play. I think the NHL front office should take a similar stance and let the game develop naturally.

If you didn’t see the play, check out the video on youtube.

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