Friday, June 19, 2009

Ten years ago tonight

On June 19, 1999, I was sitting in the auxiliary media area upstairs in Marine Midland Arena, waiting for Game Six of the Stanley Cup finals to end. And waiting and waiting and waiting.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the controversial game, and I was there for The Buffalo News. As our deadlines slowly sailed by, my planned story about how the Sabres had generated some offensive opportunities if not goals seemed less and less relevant. By 1 a.m., I just wanted the game to end so I could do my work and go home. But the game had other ideas.

Finally at 1:30 or so, Brett Hull scored, and those in the press area muttered something about "finally" and headed to the press elevator to go to the locker rooms. I remember someone saying on the way down, "Hull's foot probably was in the crease." He was joking, and we all laughed. After all, the "foot in the crease" rule was an issue that seemed to come up constantly all that season. Then we got off the elevator, walked down the hall and entered a full-fledged blow-up about the goal's legality.

I wrote my sidebar and a notebook in a hurry. I don't think it was exactly poetry, but it helped fill the space in the newspaper that next morning. But my best work in the subject, came some time later, when I wrote the following for The Sporting News:

That sound you may have heard this week was my jaw hitting the ground.

I've now read the NHL's supplemental rules about goals in the crease, and I'm willing to say that the goal that ended Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals should not have counted. That's an 180-degree turn from my feelings after it happened.

Let's review the play one more time. Mike Modano of the Stars put a shot on goal. Brett Hull may or may not have gotten his stick on the puck in an effort to deflect the shot. The puck bounced off Dominik Hasek and into an area in front of the crease. Hull appeared to direct the puck from his left skate to his forehand -- and keep in mind that according to the NHL's rules, possession can only be obtained by having the puck on one's stick. Then Hull moved his left skate into the crease as he fired the puck past Hasek for the winning goal.

While the rule book states that a goal cannot be scored if an offensive player has his foot in the crease, an internal NHL memo states that the rule is not absolute. A March memo listed 12 situations that could come up. Two could be considered relevant here.

The NHL cited clarification number nine, which said, "An attacking player maintains control of the puck but skates into the crease before the puck enters the crease and shoots the puck into the net. Result: Goal is allowed. The offside rule rationale applies (in the sense that a player with the puck can precede it into the opposing zone.")

Clarification number 10 states, "An attacking player takes a shot on net and after doing so, skates into the crease. The initial shot deflects outside the crease. The original attacking player, still in the crease, recovers the puck, which is now outside the crease, and scores. Result: Goal is disallowed."

All right, let's start with the fact that the Hull "goal" did not fit either classification neatly. You probably could argue that in such cases the main rule should therefore apply, that a goal can't be scored with a skate in the crease.

If you had to pick which example was more relevant here, it probably would be number 10. Hull didn't have possession (as the league defines it) of the puck until it was on his stick, even if he did deflect the first shot. Therefore, clarification number nine would not apply. And he didn't clearly have possession, take a shot, collect the rebound, and shovel the puck home either.

In clarification number 10, Hull certainly recovered the puck after an initial shot and scored while in the crease. It's not a perfect fit, but it's the closest one available. When the NHL first explained its rule, it said that a player had to have possession and control of the puck as he scored in order to record a legal goal even with a skate in the crease. I took that to mean "at the time of the shot," comparing it to a breakaway when a player is touching the crease when he scores.

But the supplemental instructions show that Hull had to have control of the puck for a longer period than that. With all that in mind, I can come to only one conclusion. No goal.

I still think in a perfect world that Hull's goal should have counted. I'm a believer in "no harm, no foul" in such cases. The foot in the crease had nothing to do with anything. I still think the Sabres have themselves to blame for not having a defenseman in Hull's vicinity. I still think the NHL got into trouble because its published rules were not the actual playing rules. And I'd still like to know who opened the Zamboni doors after Hull put the puck in the net.

But I no longer think the goal should have counted. That means the final outcome of the series always will be slightly tainted.


Gravypan said...

He kicked the puck over to a shooting position. If that doesn't constitute puck control, I don't know what does.

Budd Bailey said...

But that's not what the rule says...