What is puck possession? It's a simple enough question, but the lack of clarity provided by the NHL leads to confusion for players, fans and pundits alike, not to mention the refs. When Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens was leveled by Eric Gryba of the Ottawa Senators in Thursday night's action, the resulting violent hit seriously injured Eller, and Gryba was given a 5 minute major for interference, a game misconduct and was handed a 2 game suspension today by the NHL's department of player safety. Later replays showed that Eller had received the pass a fraction of a second before contact occurred, so in the commonly accepted interpretation of the rule, this was not interference.
The idea for this article stemmed from an unlikely source, as I was perusing twitter and came across this tweet from Damien Cox of the Toronto Star:
Smart hockey people are saying NHL needs to re-examine the issue of possession of the puck. Did Eller actually possess it? Not a chance.— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) May 3, 2013
This raises an interesting question: what is "possession" in the NHL?
The definition of possession given by the NHL in the rule book is, in a word, insufficient:
Possession of the Puck: The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession.
Obviously, there's a big grey area there, as the rule is vague in how you can finish a check, and what a player has to do to be in "possession" of the puck. When there is a delayed penalty call, the offending team has to "control" the puck before play will be blown dead, meaning simply touching or deflecting the puck is not enough. Can this be applied to receiving a pass as well? In the case of the hit on Eller,you might have to. It is easy to see that Eller was in a defenseless position when the puck arrived on his stick, and Gryba lowered the boom a fraction of a second later. If this was a football game in the CFL or NFL, the play would be deemed an incomplete pass, as the receiving player was not in possession on the ball when the pass arrived because they did not make a "football move" after receiving it. The same can be said for Eller, as despite being in physical contact with the puck, he did have have it long enough to truly be in possession of it. By this logic, the refs would have been right to say that Gryba hit a player that was not in possession of the puck, and because it was a violent hit that injured Eller the refs were again right to impose the 5 and a game penalty they leveled out.
But that's not what happened because that's not how the rule is written. But it should be.
As the NHL continues to preach that they are trying to eliminate head shots and violent plays from the game, it has become increasingly aware that there is too much in the NHL rule book that is open to interpretation, and puck possession is just one such thing.
The NHL needs to implement wording that would defend the defenseless players, as it has with hitting from behind. Eller was put in a defenseless position by the suicide pass from Raphael Diaz, but it was Gryba that laid the check and he is the one who needs to be responsible for the consequence of that action.
There will be an onus on players like Eller to not put themselves in defenseless positions, but in order to eliminate some of the injuries that mar the game, the ability to hit a defenseless player has to be eliminated altogether, to eliminate debate like that which has broken out since the hit.
So I propose this amendment:
The onus shall be on the hitting player to avoid violent contact with a defenseless player wherever possible.
It's not perfect, because it really doesn't define what possessing the puck means, though the NHL could stand to outline the difference between possessing, playing and deflecting the puck.
I believe when Gryba says he wasn't targeting the head of Eller, but the fact remains that his actions caused serious injury, and that just shouldn't be allowed.
Because any check that results in that type of injury should not be allowed to be viewed as legal.