The NHL has a problem.
“Matt Calvert is helpless at the top of the circle—there’s blood still down all over the Avalanche zone!—and they don’t blow the whistle.” Avalanche commentators Mark Moser and Peter McNab were stunned.
“They’ve got to blow the whistle now, to get the blood off, I mean—. They’re not going to.” Matt Calvert’s head wound had been spilling blood as the play continued around him. It was still on the Avalanche ice when the referees dropped the puck; a stark, vivid reminder of the dangerous injury that took place mmoments before.
Prioritizing players’ lives and well-being over a potentially incorrect call shouldn’t be a judgement call, it should be automatic. There’s not a grey area between getting help to a player with a head injury and slightly disadvantaging the opposing team. The fact that this is happening more often reveals a systemic problem within the league of not prioritizing player safety.
Three minutes before the end of Saturday night’s game between the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche, Canucks center Elias Pettersson took a shot that hit Matt Calvert in the helmet as he went down to block it. Calvert fell down to the ice, bleeding from the side of the head.
Play continued for thirteen seconds and only stopped when Alex Edler scored. Calvert was helped off the by the Avalanche athletic trainer, and teammate Nikita Zadorov, who went through a similar experience less than two weeks ago and suffered a broken jaw.
During Nathan MacKinnon’s postgame interview with Scott Oake for Hockey Night in Canada, he was much more focused on talking about Calvert’s injury than the game or his overtime-winning goal.
“I mean that rule is pretty crazy,” MacKinnon said. “A guy laying there, bleeding out the side of his head. I can only imagine if that was LeBron James and his head was bleeding and they let the other team take a three-pointer to tie the game. I know it’s not the refs’ fault. It’s the league’s rule.”
Nathan MacKinnon on the NHL rule that allowed play to continue while teammate Matt Calvert was laying down on the ice bleeding pic.twitter.com/bwXttX2Vh2
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) November 17, 2019
The rule in question is 8.1 – Injured Player in the NHL Rulebook.
When a player is injured so that he cannot continue play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player’s team has secured control of the puck. If the player’s team is in control of the puck at the time of injury, play shall be stopped immediately unless his team is in a scoring position.
In the case where it is obvious that a player has sustained a serious injury, the Referee and/or Linesman may stop the play immediately.
“Sometimes it’s a tough call to make,” head coach Jared Bednar said after the game, “but in that situation, you should’ve blown it dead.”
A referees’ determination of what qualifies as a serious injury, and whether they consider it to be ‘obvious’ or not, leaves too much grey area. If they’re going to make an error they should err on the side of caution. If fans, players, and GMs are going to call for changes to rules about major penalties, overtime goals, and goalie interference, they should put this rule at the top of the list for revision.
Columbus Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski echoed that sentiment on Twitter.
Has to be blown down. This play has to stop https://t.co/ig8WkmGT20
— Zach Werenski (@ZachWerenski) November 17, 2019
To clarify, this is a tough spot for the refs based on the rule, it puts them in a tough position and I’m sure they don’t want to see anyone hurt on the ice. Have to find a way to make it more clear in situations like this
— Zach Werenski (@ZachWerenski) November 17, 2019
This isn’t a trivial or insignificant matter for the officials and a mistake when the stakes are that high could leave them with regrets long after their career is over. When Hockey Night in Canada mainstay Ron MacLean looked back on his 23-year career as an official, one of the most memorable games for him was one where he faced a situation with a potentially injured player and decided not to stop the game.
“If I had it to do again,” MacLean said to Brandon Bourgeois on the Go Team Stripes Podcast, “I would have blown the play dead because what’s the harm? Once you make a decision as critical as I made and the game ends, there’s no going back. I think I probably shouldn’t have tried to play doctor and figure out whether the goalie was genuinely hurt.”
The vast majority of times that a player gets hit with the puck and is incapacitated, the play is called dead. In this compilation one of those players is, in fact, Matt Calvert, then playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But the Calvert non-call isn’t an isolated occurence, and, for whetever reason–either the frequency of incidence or publicity surrounding them–seems to be more prevalent this season.
The non-call also affected the outcome of a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff series when Dallas Stars goaltender Ben Bishop was down on the ice after taking a puck to the collarbone and the St. Louis Blues scored on the open net.
Ben Bishop takes a slapper to the collarbone and the Blues score while he’s down pic.twitter.com/AFVhPPUCcE
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 5, 2019
Pension Plan Puppets excellent analysis was aptly titled: The NHL rules are broken and it’s ruining hockey: It isn’t the refs fault for the NHL’s series of incompetent screw ups.
Benn on the 3rd goal when Bishop was down. This sums it up pretty well:
"If we had a whistle we probably would have blown it. And if they had a whistle they probably wouldn't have. It is what it is, you can't worry about it and you've got to move on."
— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) May 5, 2019
Stars captain Jamie Benn’s comments were diplomatic but they also clearly lay out the fact that these calls and non-calls are seen as subjective or biased towards one team or the other. Referees and players don’t think that referees can or will call the rules, as written, with the players’ safety as the overriding factor.
While our usual referrendum of referree failues is centered around inconsistency in enforcement, subjective judgement calls, and a rulebook that is both outdated and unclear–there’s a difference in urgency and scale between goaltender interference rulings being confusing, and potentially life-threatening head injuries being untreated.
Avalanche’s alternate captain Erik Johnson had a blistering, profanity-laden, on-point response after the game. “The guy’s got a family at home,” he said to Ryan Clark of The Athletic.
“It’s bigger than the game. This is your life. He got hit in the head, and he’s bleeding out of his head. Let’s use some common sense here and blow the damn whistle.”
The stakes are too high. Referees have to call the play dead before we end up with a dead player.
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