Why Hockey Has to Rethink the Header


For something that went down at such an obscene hour EST — and that involved the other NHL conference final, i.e., not the Rangers’ — the soccer-style header delivered by Chicago’s Andrew Shaw in double OT against the Ducks sure attracted no paucity of New York buzz. The Times ran an explanation of the rule governing such a play. Islanders forward Michael Grabner, claiming ignorance of that proscription, saluted Shaw’s effort nonetheless. And New York City FC midfielder Mix Diskerud seemed to dig it, which I know because I tweeted the clip to him and he favorited it — hooray! (The Rangers themselves might’ve stayed largely mum on the subject, at least on social media, but then they did have a Game 3 to prep for down in Tampa, and the whole state of Florida is still limited to 14.4 dial-up, I think.)

That a footballer like Diskerud would be impressed is perhaps unsurprising. Shaw’s was a textbook snap header, after all, requiring a perfectly timed leap (from the ice surface, in this case), not to mention catching the puck off the brand-logo on his helmet’s boss (as opposed to, say, right between the eyes), all while being sure to direct the disk fairly severely downward. The play was also an amazing example of the kind of high-speed, real-time judiciousness by dint of which these guys become pros in the first place: Swat at the puck with his twig, Shaw knew, and the goal would be disallowed on account of high-sticking.

It was disallowed anyway, of course, but there’s the rub. Shaw’s consummately skillful non-goal gave us the perfect lens for discerning what nonsense the NHL’s rules regarding scoring are as currently codified/construed. As things stand now, for a goal to be considered “good,” the puck must either hail from the scorer’s stick or be redirected, quite unwittingly, off any other body part or piece of paraphernalia. The first scenario is beyond impugnment; it’s the spirit of the sport. The second is where things get stupid. Have an errant shot careen off your helmet and in, the rules say, and your team’s a goal to the good. But to knowingly guide an airborne puck over the line, as Shaw did? Verboten (as the Austrian Grabner will henceforth know to put it).

Now, this might not be an issue if the plays in question were illegal throughout the rest of the sport. They are not. Though it hardly ever happens, heading a puck anywhere other than into the four-by-six is not against the rules. But the better example would be the use of one’s feet — an absolutely essential skill for a top-level hockey player to possess. Defensemen, their sticks tied up by forechecking opponents, regularly kick pucks along the dasher. And catching a pass with one’s skate-blade in a way that keeps one in stride — well, that’s another thing that separates the beer-leaguers from guys like Sidney Crosby. But to try and score with your boots? Nein! Hockey demands the development and deployment of good foot technique, then inexplicably punishes just that in the one area it (literally) counts.

What’s more, the league has recently attempted to rectify the nebulous judgment call that is the “distinct kicking motion” — and of course succeeded only in muddying the waters further. But why not just eliminate the guesswork entirely? If something is OK to do at center ice, why should it not be a valid way to pot a goal? (Conversely, in the case of stuff that’s prohibited throughout the run of play — pucks touched with high sticks, hand-passes to teammates outside the defensive end — that’s exactly where to draw the line: No pucks thrown into the net or batted in from above the crossbar.) Why privilege a skill, only then to renege when it matters most?

More hockey: One-Eyed Willie O’Ree, the man who busted the NHL’s color line (1999)