Rule 52a:

“A Minor penalty or, at the discretion of the Referee, a Major penalty and a Game Misconduct penalty shall be assessed to any player who runs or jumps into or charges an opponent.  If injury results, a Major penalty and a Game Misconduct penalty shall be assessed.  Note: If more than two steps or strides are taken, it shall be considered a charge.” (Canadian Hockey Referee’s Case Book/Rule Combination, 2001, pg. 141).

The charging rule often causes confusion because it states that a penalty will be assessed for taking more than two strides when you hit someone. It must be pointed out that the two stride rule only applies to the final strides you take before hitting a player. A person may take 50 hard strides to get to a player and then coast into him. This will not usually result in a charging penalty simply because the player did not try to pick up speed at the end of the trip.

If the last two or three meters before you hit someone after taking a healthy charge at them are spent gliding into this person, then it is difficult to call a charging penalty because the feet are no longer moving.  This is a key point, so let me repeat it – the feet are no longer moving.

This does not mean that no penalty will be called. The checking player may get his fists up, use his elbow, or slam the opponent into the boards with excessive force, deserving of a boarding call.

When assessing a possible charging situation, the referee examines closely what happens during the last few meters before contact. Were the feet moving in an attempt to gain speed? Did the feet come off the ice? Was there an overly aggressive attempt to generate excessive force upon impact? Remember, it is not really how far the player had to travel before the hit. It is what happened immediately prior to contact that determines a charge.

The charging rule is an attempt to minimize the number of injuries that are received from people running at other players with the sole intent of to creating pain. Body checking was not introduced into hockey for the big, thunderous hits that everyone loves to see.  The main goal of body checking is to separate the player from the puck and allow a teammate to pick up the loose puck. 

Many experienced coaches still teach their players to old theory about body checking: “First man takes the body; second man takes the puck”.  This is what checking was designed to do. It was not designed to send someone through the boards, even though it is exciting from the fan’s point of view when a big hit occurs. However, it’s not too pleasant for the person being hit.

The next time you see a big hitter like Scott Stevens lining up a player who is cutting across the ice, watch how he hits this person.  Sure he skates towards the player but nearly 99% of the time during the last metre before he hits an opponent he is gliding into him and then at the last moment he will give an extra push off his back leg to make sure that he isn’t the one sent flying.  Scott Stevens is one of the best big hitters in NHL history, but he is not a dirty hitter.  He uses his shoulder and he hits within the rules of hockey, making sure to position himself properly at the moment of impact.

As a fan of hockey, put yourself in the skates of the referee who is skating down the ice and sees a hit developing. When you are down on ice level you get a certain feeling for when there is about to be a big hit just by how a team may be breaking out of their own end or of the play a forward is trying to make on a defenseman, such as cutting across the ice.  As the referee you are concentrating on this anticipated big hit and you only have a split second to determine whether or not there was a penalty in the hit. Here is what you are trying to watch for as the hit develops:

1) The distance between the checking player and the player with the puck.

The rule of thumb is that the further the distance between the two players, the greater the chance for a charging penalty to occur.  Also, you must see if the players are skating towards each other or if they are going in the same direction.  You are more likely to see a good, clean hit when both players are going in the same direction. They may be quite a distance apart at the beginning, but if they are going in the same direction, into the boards for example, there may be quite a crushing blow and bodies falling all over the place, but there may not be a “charge”.

2) Does the checking player look like he wants to just separate the player from the puck, or does it look like he wants to send him through the boards?

Remember, watching a game from ice level is much different from watching it from the stands. On the ice a referee gets to watch attitudes develop over the course of a game. Near the end of a game it often becomes “pay-back-time”. A checking player may see his last opportunity to get back at an opponent who has been bugging him all game. A referee will be aware of this and will be watching to see if the checker goes a bit too far with the hit. Nevertheless, a referee can only call a penalty “after the fact”. Fans sometimes get upset with a referee after a player lays a charge on an opponent. This is when you will hear fans yell at the referee that he has “lost control of the game” or accuse the referee of allowing the player to hurt another. A referee may see that a big charge is coming. He may even anticipate it. However, in the game today he can only call the penalty after it happens. We have heard stories from “old-timers” who tell tales from when colourful referees donned the stripes. A referee in the early days could look at a player and give him a misconduct for “thinking bad thoughts”, but we all know how the administration would frown on such a call today.

3) When the actual hit occurs, did the checking player jump?

As soon as a player’s skates leave the ice when he is throwing a check, this is classified as charging under the rules.  However, the tough part for the referee is to determine whether or not the player throwing the check left the ice before he hit the player or after he hit the player. 

In other words, you must understand that often after two players collide, one of them will have their feet leave the ice surface, and from a distance it may look as if the person jumped. This is perfectly legal as long as the player throwing the check did not jump before he made contact with the puck carrier. The person throwing the check may have had his feet leave the ice as a result of the momentum of his forward motion hitting and bouncing upwards after making contact with the opponent, especially if the opponent ducks a bit or is smaller. A referee must watch the skates and make a split decision.

4) Were there any other penalties on the hit?

Any time two players come together in minor hockey, there is a potential for a penalty to occur.  Not only does the referee have to look at the checking player charging at the puck carrier, he must also take into consideration other matters such as:

i) Were the checking player’s hands up in the face of the puck carrier?

ii) Did the elbow of the checking player come up and hit the head?

iii) Did the checking player go directly for the head of the puck carrier?

iv) If the checking player was going to miss the hit, did he intentionally try and use his knee or arm to hit the player or trip the player?

As a parent, coach, player, or just simply a hockey fan, try and remember that the referee does not always have the best view to see whether or not the checking player threw an elbow, fist, knee or if he charged at the player.  It is always easier to see penalties from the stands, but you also don’t know what the referee is sensing on the ice.  For instance, maybe the referee just let the puck carrier get away with a slash on the checking player and now all the parents see is the checking player charging at the puck carrier and want a penalty called.  Keep in mind that referees know what they have allowed players to get away with throughout a game, and they know which players have gotten away with borderline infractions.  So if a player committing these infractions gets paid back with a big check or charge, then the referee may not call the penalty if there is no injury on the play. The fans in the stands never remember what their players have gotten away with during earlier parts of the game. They only remember what has happened now.

We all know that hockey administrators and referees-in-chief will tell you that referees are always told to call by the book. However, we also know that the senior referees “don’t” call by the book. They have developed an instinct for managing the game and know how to create an exciting, safe hockey game within the spirit of the rules rather than within the letter of the law.

Nevertheless, referees are also aware of the damage that can be done by charging and are very cognizant of this fact. The biggest problem is that if you ask any mother or father for their opinion, you will almost always hear them state that when their child gets hit, it is a charge. But when it is their son doing the hitting, it is clean. Funny game, isn’t it?