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Well-Warranted Hockey Rule Changes

Like any sport, hockey has progressed over the years. In the midst of its 100-year anniversary this year, the National Hockey League has led the way, while the rest of the pack--amateur and minor leagues--fell into line to keep the sport consistent from coast to coast. Many rule changes occurred over a crucial 40-year period starting in 1917 that shaped the game that we see now on TV and in person at the rink.

Historically, the NHL was actually a continuation of the National Hockey Association, which had been around since 1909, a league with teams in Ontario and Quebec that saw six players per side, thus eliminating the previous rover position. 

From the very beginning, Toronto Blueshirts’ owner Eddie Livingston caused so much trouble within the NHA executive ranks--such as threatening to move his team to Boston despite NHA league disapproval--that three of the NHA teams (Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, and Ottawa Senators) decided to totally ignore Livingston and his franchise, and form their own league for the 1917-18 season. They also added a new team in Toronto called the Arenas. As a result, Livingston tried suing the other teams for leaving him in the lurch. But nothing came of it. 

Jean Beliveau
Beehive hockey picture of Jean Beliveau (Canadian Public Domain)

Frank Calder was the NHL’s first president, a true visionary if there ever was one who remained in office for the next 25 years. Under his guidance, the first major change occurred in the first NHL season: Goaltenders were allowed to drop to the ice to make saves. Before that, they were handed a minor penalty, which--believe it or not--they had to serve themselves by leaving the ice while a forward or defenseman replaced them! The next season, in 1918-19, two blue lines were painted on the ice surface 20 feet from center ice (which had no red or any other-colored line), thus creating three zones with the neutral center piece 40 feet long. This latter area being the only zone where forward passing was allowed.

Throughout the 1920s, the defensive strategy of the time was to keep the opposing team bottled up in its own 20-foot zone, making for a very boring game at times. This was an early form of “the trap.” Players could not pass the puck over the defensive line to a teammate--they had to carry it out. In 1926-27, the blue lines were moved up to 60 feet from the goal lines, shortening the neutral zone from 60 feet down to 40 feet. In addition, in 1928-29, a minor penalty was called against a player who passed the puck back in the defensive zone. Apparently, the game was not clicking: too many 1-0 and 2-0 scores. Now, something definitely had to be done.

So, beginning in 1929-30, forward passes in all zones were allowed. This opened up the game, doubled the scoring, and also established the term we now know as “blueliners.” Dealing with this new problem, the league invented the modern offside rule for the 1930-31 season, where the puck had to be thrown or taken into the attacking zone ahead of other players entering the zone.

In 1934-35, for the first time, the NHL saw penalty shots. They occurred when a player was tripped or otherwise held from preventing a clear shot on net with no teammate to pass to. Play was stopped, and any player appointed by the coach had to take his shot inside a 10-foot circle that was 38 feet from the net. The goalie could move up only 12 inches, at most, beyond the goal line. 

By mid-season 1936-1937, a goaltender no longer had to serve his own penalty and was replaced by a teammate. In 1937-38, icing the puck came into being, which increased the chances of injury as players from both sides often were forced to race for the puck. “No touch” icing back then.

The next season, 1938-39, the league changed the penalty rule to add some excitement. The puck carrier could now race towards the goalie before firing away at him.

In 1940-41, resurfacing the ice between periods became mandatory. Several hand flooders were now used by a crew of workers, unlike the single Zambonis in this day and age. Prior to all this, ice surfaces were only scraped, leading to chips and gouges everywhere as the game went on. Oftentimes, overtime playoff games extended into several periods because the players had a tough time moving and maneuvering.  

To speed up the game and reduce the number of off-sides during World War II--when the best players were overseas--the league introduced the Red Line in 1943-44. Ever since then, hockey is a dump-and-chase game. One ex-player in particular, forward Guyle Fielder, hated the system and it probably kept him out of the NHL. Fielder was a scoring sensation in the old Western Hockey League during the 1950s and 1960s, setting records that still stand in pro hockey. 

Terry Sawchuk
Beehive hockey picture of Terry Sawchuk (Canadian Public Domain)

An incredible stick-handler, Fielder was an unselfish center, who would set up an offense like no one in hockey before or since. “I didn’t like the NHL’s dump-and-chase system,” the spry Fielder told me over the phone from his home in Mesa, Arizona in 2014.  He preferred to hang onto the puck, until the time was right to snap off a crisp pass to an open teammate gunning for the net.  This irked the NHL coaches and GMs to no end. If you couldn’t make the play, you were supposed to dump it in. “If you have the puck, why give it away?” Fielder added. “That’s what a center is for. Make the plays and set up others.” 

Finally, last but not least, one of the most significant rule changes and one of the most talked about began at the start of the 1956-57 season, in which two-minute penalized players were allowed to return to the ice when the first goal was scored by the opposing team. Prior to this, the team with the man-advantage was able to score as many goals as they could within those two minutes, weather they were on a 5-on-4 or even 5-on-3. How did this new rule come about?

By the mid-1950s, the Montreal Canadiens had the most potent power play in hockey history, with such weapons as Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Bert Olmstead, Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, and Tom Johnson unleashing a flurry of shots on net. This team could embarrass you in a couple of two-minute spans, enough to completely change around any 60-minute game. 

One night, November 5, 1955, Jean Beliveau scored a Hat Trick in 44 seconds on Bruins netminder Terry Sawchuk on just one 5-on-3 power play, setting the stage for the opposing teams--all five of them in the Original Six led by Detroit Red Wings GM Jack Adams--to gang up on Montreal and force the rule change to keep the Canadiens at least at bay for the next season and beyond. 

Even under the new penalty rule, Montreal managed to set the NHL team record for goals with 250 in 1957-58, before passing that mark by eight more the following year. Furthermore, the Habs showed themselves as still unstoppable, despite their vicious power play curtailed, by winning a remarkable five straight Stanley Cups from 1956-1960. Although challenged by the New Islanders and Edmonton Oilers since, Montreal’s five NHL championships in a row remains a record--the benchmark for power and domination--and will probably stay that way for a long, long time.

What a game hockey is today, thanks to some of these mentioned rules.

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