Rules? What rules? How Roger Nielson forced the NHL to evolve its regulations

Rulebook loopholes have led to many weird and entertaining events in NHL history.

Roger Nielson also popularized the waving of the white towel at hockey games. — Photo: Bardown

By: Connor Stephenson, SFU Student

In the NHL, the only rule is . . . there are no rules. Well, not exactly, but occasionally in the rulebooks of professional sports, there are loopholes that allow coaches and players to deploy some oddly entertaining tactics. Some coaches and players that are more creatively inclined even rely on these loophole-exploiting strategies to consistently give their teams a competitive advantage. 

The most famous of these is former Vancouver Canucks coach Roger Nielson, who conceptualized  brilliantly strategic plays explicitly based on his knowledge of the rules and their blindspots and inadequacies. 

Nielson had an impressive tenure as a head coach in the NHL with a career that spanned from the late 1970s to the early 2000s — not to mention a creative mind. Most famously, during a shootout or penalty shot, Nielson would swap his goalie out for a forward or defender. As the opposing player was preparing to skate down the ice to take their penalty shot, Nielson’s player would charge at the puck carrier and knock the puck away before the opponent could get even remotely close enough to the net for a scoring chance. Further to this, Nielson would direct his goalie to leave his stick and other easily removable equipment in front of the net before leaving the ice. This served as another, technically legal, protective layer should the skater be unable to stop the advancing player. These tactics undoubtedly provoked confusion and indignation in his opponents, but they were not explicitly forbidden.

These were certainly not the only tricks Nielson had up his sleeve. He also exploited the rule that a team is not permitted to have less than three skaters on the ice. Knowing this, Nielson, in the hopes of running down the clock in the final minute or two, would deliberately order an additional one of his players onto the ice for an intentional too-many-men infraction. Since a team couldn’t have any less than three players on the ice, Nielson knew that he could perpetually dump an extra player on the ice without being further penalized. The theory behind this tactic was that having numerous plays stopped would prevent the other team from being able to set up in the offensive zone to score. And of course, Nielson’s team wasn’t at a progressive disadvantage, because the most they could be down was two players. All of this, if it went as Nielson had drawn it up, would culminate in a win.

Subsequent to Nielsen’s creative coaching endeavours, the league was forced to reconcile the inherent flaws in some of its rules. In response to Nielsen’s tactics, rule 24.2 was added to explicitly state that a team is only permitted to use a goalkeeper in the net for penalty shots and shootouts. In addition, there was a rule change pertaining to intentional too-many-men infractions, dubbed the Deliberate Illegal Substitution rule, which dictates that, if a player takes a deliberate too-many-men penalty, the opposing team will be awarded a penalty shot (rule 74.4).

The rules and parameters of the NHL are constantly evolving as the game does, and they surely would have changed even if coach Nielson wasn’t there to cleverly work around them. Despite this, I think all hockey fans owe Roger Nielson a standing ovation for strategizing in a fashion that provoked hilarity, entertainment, and regulatory improvement.