CHECKING FROM BEHIND

  

IF YOU SEE THE NUMBERS – STOP!

The Checking From Behind (CFB) rule was introduced because people saw a need to protect hockey players from severe head, neck and back injuries - the most severe consequence of these types of injuries being death or paralysis for life.

We all recognize that checking from behind has been part of the game of hockey since the beginning of time, but only recently, as a result of the increasing number of serious injuries to young hockey players, has this issue been given the attention it deserves.

The need to enforce this rule also arose, in part, because of the lack of respect for an opponent’s well being that is shown by players in almost every hockey game at every level from minor hockey all the way to the professional ranks.

Since the introduction of the Checking From Behind penalty, the number of serious injuries has actually decreased, so it appears to be working.

Referees have no tolerance with anyone who is guilty of intentionally checking another player from behind. It is one of those cowardly acts that give hockey a bad name and the sooner we can either change the habits of players who use this technique in the game,  or remove them from the game all together, the better.

PENALTY OPTIONS:

Checking from Behind has three possible calls that can be made by the Referee,

1)         Minor penalty + Game Misconduct (GM)
2)         Major penalty + Game Misconduct (GM)
3)         Match penalty

Regardless of what call is made, any player who, in the judgment of the Referee, checks a player from behind will be removed from that game, and, pending the ruling of the governing bodies of that league, will possibly have to sit out additional games under suspension. This is a very serious infraction and the leagues are coming down hard on guilty parties.

THE ROLE OF THE LINESMAN

Linesmen are allowed to call Game Misconduct penalties throughout the course of a hockey game. However, since they are not allowed to call minor penalties, they are not in a position to call a Minor penalty plus a Game Misconduct for checking from behind. They are, however, able to call a Major penalty plus a Game Misconduct for checking from behind.

Many people feel that linesmen should be able to call all Checking From Behind penalties. The debate has generated much discussion with supporters of both positions having good arguments.

People who argue against giving linesmen this responsibility cite the fact that linesmen are usually not as qualified or experienced as the referee, and therefore, they may call a Checking From Behind penalty when the referee would have called it boarding or cross-checking. This kind of contradiction would not look very good for the image of the game, and we’re sure there would be some very harsh words for the linesman in between periods.

Another difficulty lies with the severe consequences of a Check From Behind. True, it is a serious and cowardly act, however, the automatic ejection provision has actually worked against seeing the call made as often as it should. A referee wants to be absolutely sure that a Check From Behind did in fact occur. Therefore, if there is any possible doubt, he will usually award a minor penalty for boarding, charging or crosschecking. Senior referees will take a very long time after a borderline checking from behind infraction occurs before giving any signal. The referee, in these cases, is trying to make certain that an injury resulted from the infraction. He may also consult his linesmen for their opinion on what happened.

Many referees and hockey administrators feel that reducing the Checking From Behind to a minor and a ten-minute misconduct would serve a better purpose and accomplish the main goal. It would still leave the referee with the discretion of calling a major and a game misconduct, but at least allows a strong message to be sent out without the need for ejecting a player.

As it is now, if a linesman sees a Check from Behind calling for a Major + Game Misconduct or a Match penalty, then he is allowed to report this to the referee who will then either accept the linesman’s suggestion, or make no call at all. The no call is not a popular option if the referee wants to have the support of the linesmen in the future, therefore, if a linesman feels the need to report a Check from Behind to the referee it is usually felt that there must be sufficient reason to assess the player a Major + Game Misconduct or a Match penalty. Knowing this, however, it takes a lot for a linesman to approach the referee with a suggestion that a player should be given a major and game misconduct. It places the team in a deep hole and often results in a suspension. Most linesmen will take the position that if the referee did not call the infraction, there must have been a reason.

REFEREE’S JUDGEMENT CALL

Checking From Behind is one of those calls that require a referee to take into consideration a number of factors. It is not an easy call to make and experience is generally the best teacher in this case.

1) Did the player throwing the check mean to hit the player from behind?

Not surprisingly, an experienced Referee will always have a gut feeling as to whether or not a player making the check wanted to hit his opponent directly from behind with an intent to injure. This “gut feeling’ will have a direct impact on the call.  If the referee feels that the contact was an accident, he may lean towards the Minor + GM for Checking From Behind.  You will also notice that many referees will substitute Checking From Behind with “Boarding. This is often the case when the referee feels that a player was merely hit from the side, forcing him to spin into the boards head first. Boarding is also the call when the check was so light that there as no possible way that any player being checked would be injured by the force of the check into the boards. From the point of view of a parent, or other players, the force of impact may sound much worse than it actually was. A referee must be very observant when it appears as if there will be contact from behind. He must anticipate the contact and be ready to make a tough judgment call.

2) Did the hit occur on the side of the shoulder and cause the player to spin into the boards as though he was checked from behind?

Quite often a player will hit an opponent on the side of the shoulder and this will send the player into the boards awkwardly. Coaches and fans dispute these hits the most, but the key for the referee is that the check never actually occurred from behind. It was the way that the player being hit went into the boards that made it look as though he was checked from behind. If in the referee’s opinion, the player receiving the check was hit legally and it was the way that he went into the boards that made it look like a check from behind, the Referee will either not call a penalty or he may assess a minor for boarding, if he feels that the player throwing the check wanted to violently throw his opponent into the boards.  

In the above example, it appears as if the blue player hit the white player on the shoulder, causing him to go head first into the boards. This would not be called checking from behind since the check never really took place from behind, but rather from the side.

3) Did the player being hit turn at the last second? This is still a penalty for Checking from Behind, but it may change a Major to a Minor penalty.

Remember that if a player about to be checked turns at the last second and is hit from behind, then the player throwing the check should still be assessed a penalty for Checking from Behind. This is very much like the rule of thumb in driving an automobile. In all rear end collisions, the driver of the car in the back is usually always charged because it is expected that he will keep a safe distance from the car in front to stop suddenly. 

Referees soon become well aware of players who always turn their backs when they are about to be hit, especially after the Ref has seen the player over a few games. These players will rarely suck a player into a CFB penalty once the Referee is familiar with their tendencies. Referees consider players such as  these as merely trying to show up the referee and make his job that much more difficult. This does not generate much respect from the officials.

4) Was the player throwing the check in motion or standing still?

During a game, you will sometimes see a player who is skating backwards run into an opposing player who is standing still. The player standing still usually puts out his stick in a crosschecking motion, causing the player skating backwards to fall to the ice with his head snapping back. This is not a check from behind because the player standing still did not check the player. He was just standing his ground. It looks bad from the stands, but it should not be called a checking from behind.

Another common situation occurs when two players are standing in front of the net battling for position. The defenseman will usually throw a few crosschecks to the back of the opposing player, which will at times cause the player to fall to the ice. This is not a check from behind because the player throwing the crosscheck was not in motion, however he can still receive a penalty for crosschecking. The action in front of a net can be quite intense. It is sometimes called “no man’s land’, or “suicide alley” because of the abuse that forwards often take from defensemen trying to clear the front of the net.

The key to look for in the above situations is “who was in motion”? If the person doing the striking was standing still, the referee will not usually call a penalty for Checking From Behind. Parents and coaches often react emotionally whenever they see a player falling down in a manner consistent with being hit from behind. However, imagine two automobiles sitting at an intersection. If the car in front suddenly lurches in reverse, striking the car behind. The driver of the car behind will not be charged, even though when the police come to check things out, his car will seem as if it did the hitting.  

In these two photos, you see what commonly happens in front of the net. Both the Forward (white) and the Defence (blue) are battling for postion. The defenceman throws a cross-check into the forward’s lower back. This is not a Check From Behind because the Defenceman was not in motion.

5) Was there unintentional contact made to the back of a player while players were battling for the puck?

This happens quite often throughout a game where you have two aggressive players are battling for the puck along the boards. Usually the forward is trying to shield the puck from the defender by using his body to keep the puck along boards. His body is about  3 or 4 feet away from the puck to keep it out of reach of  the defender. The defender will sometimes make contact with the back of the forward as he is trying to get the puck and this contact may send the forward into the boards head first. This is a judgment call for the referee to make. Since the defending player is usually not in motion, it is tough to call a checking from behind penalty, so referees will either call nothing and let play continue or they will assess the defending player with a boarding penalty just to say that they made a call when a player went head first into the boards.

A boarding call in this case is an excellent game management tool that allows the referee to calm down the team whose player just went head first into the boards, and it also calms the defending player’s team that is happy that their player did not get kicked out of the game. The time between blowing the whistle and signaling the call is also an opportunity to calm down the crowd.

Senior referees will usually take their time making the final signal. You will often see the referee go over to the timekeeper’s area, watch the player sit down in the penalty box, and then speak to his linesmen. There is a hush over the arena as the offending player’s team waits anxiously to see if there is going to be an ejection. The victim’s team, if the victim happens not to have been hurt, is already satisfied with a penalty, and they now await the verdict. The reason this results in a calming effect on both sides is that the referee will be letting everyone in the arena know how he will be calling these infractions for the remainder of the game. At times, when the referee finally signals a minor for boarding, there is relief and a sense of gratitude which forces the players to calm down and play more sensibly. If the player is ejected for Checking From Behind, both teams realize that any more nonsense will result in a similar call since the referee will be indicating that he is fed up with this kind of play. In either case, the length of time between the infraction and the signal is a buffer zone that is one of the most effective methods of game management available to a referee.

6) Was the player who received the check able to protect himself?

This is a critical factor in determining if a minor, major or match penalty will be assessed. If the player being checked from behind can get his arms up in a manner that will help slow himself down, or protect his head from hitting the boards first, then you will usually see a minor penalty called instead of a major.

If a player goes into the boards or net and is unable to get his arms up above his head, and the head makes contact with the boards or net first, then the referee will usually go to a Major or Match penalty. The  mere fact that the player was unable to protect himself increases the chances of injury and thus a more severe penalty will most likely be assessed. When you are waiting for the signal to be made by the referee, keep in mind this protection factor. It is perhaps the most critical element in the call.  

The above photo relates to point #6. This player being checked from behind was unable to get his arms up against the boards &/or glass in order to protect his head &/or shoulder from contacting the boards first. When a check from behind like this one occurs and an injury occurs, a referee may lean towards a more severe penalty such as a Match penalty instead of the Major penalty plus a Game Misconduct.

7) Was the check in open ice or was it into the boards or net?

An open ice check from behind is not quite as serious as a check into the boards where the player comes to a sudden stop. For example, an open ice check from behind will send the player sliding down the ice and will usually not result in an injury. The injury that is most common from an open ice check from behind is to the neck, and is very similar to whiplash injuries from car accidents.

On the other hand, if you see a player going into the boards or net without the opportunity to protect himself, you will usually see a major and game misconduct penalty called. This is because the neck and spine are more susceptible to a break when the top of the head hits the boards. The solid contact stops the head while the rest of the body continues its momentum, thus squeezing the vertebrae and resulting in a break if the impact was hard enough.

So, even though the act may clearly be an intentional check from behind,  the one in open ice may only give the team a 2 minute power play while the one near the boards may give the team a five minute opportunity. In Canada, both penalties will result in a game ejection. 

8) Did the players neck snap back or was it a light hit? The position of the head is an important element.

If the player’s head snapped back after the check from behind then the referee is more likely to assess a CFB penalty because the player’s neck snapping back shows that there was some excessive force being used.

When a player goes into the boards headfirst, the referee will look to see if the top of the head, the players face, or the back or side of the head hit the boards first. Obviously hitting the top of the head, first creates a greater opportunity for injury to occur. Regardless of the position of the head going into the boards, a checking from behind penalty should be called. The position of the head and the speed of the player going into the boards will determine what the Referee assesses. The faster the contact, and the closer to the top of the head at impact, the greater the chance that the penalty will be a Major or Match penalty.  

When a player is plastered up against the boards causing his head to snap back and his back to bend in a "U" shape, there is a good chance that a penalty may be assessed if the official was able to see the check.

9) Did the player making the check try to catch or hold the player up as he was making the check?

Most coaches teach their players that if they are about to hit a player from behind, they should try to grab hold of the player in an attempt to slow the person down as he goes into the boards. The reason why this is a good move is because if a referee sees some kind of attempt to try to stop the player from going into the boards head first, he is more likely to give a lighter penalty, if he assesses one at all. If a referee sees that a player did not mean to drive a player from behind into the boards, or in the open ice then, there is less chance that the player will receive a penalty.

Checking From Behind penalties are assessed to players who intentionally drive their opponents into the boards.  This shows a lack of respect for an opponent and thus officials will have very little sympathy for players who behave in this reckless manner. Most referees consider a Check from Behind to be a cowardly act, and since referees most often played the game themselves, they know what it is like to be hit from behind.

If you do hit a player from behind, and if you try to catch the player, you are showing a bit of respect and demonstrating that you didn’t intend to hit the person from behind. You may still get a penalty, but the game report will record what you did after the hit and it will have an impact on how long you are suspended.

10) Did the player throw himself into the boards trying to draw a penalty?

Parents, coaches, players, and referees have all seen players who, after being touched in the back, throw themselves into the boards. This sounds crazy but there are players who will do anything to try and get a power play, even if it means putting your neck on the line (no pun intended!).

If a referee suspects this, don’t expect a penalty call against the person doing the hitting, especially if the player being tapped makes a mockery of the game by throwing himself into the boards. Parents don’t see the hit as clearly as the referee, so this type of action has the effect of getting the crowd riled up. That being the case, don’t be surprised if the referee assesses a minor penalty for  “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” to the player throwing himself into the boards.

Players must get it though their heads that referees do not like being “shown up”. The job is difficult enough without having to put up with players who are out to make the referee look bad, or who will go back to the bench laughing at the referee after a successful dive. Players should also realize that referees actually speak to each other. Reputations will spread throughout the league and it will soon become like the “boy who cried wolf”. Players who are known to “dive” or “fake hits” may one day actually be hit seriously and the referees will ignore the action. Respect is a two-way street. The sooner players realize this, the better.

11) Was the check in the middle of the back or on the side of the back?

A key factor that will determine if a penalty for checking from behind is called is whether or not the player was checked in the middle of the back or towards the outer edges of the back, away from direct contact with the spine.

The closer a player is checked near the sides of the body, even though the hit was in the back region, the less chance the player will receive a checking from behind penalty. This is because a Referee does not want to kick a player out of the game unless he is absolutely sure that the player committing the infraction deserved a game misconduct. Once again, because the penalty is so severe, it is often downgraded to something of a less serious nature.

12) The player is injured so why wasn’t a Major + Game Misconduct called?

You must remember that even though the rule states that as soon as a player is injured the player causing the injury must receive a Major plus a Game Misconduct, this may not happen because of the point made in #11 above.

If a Referee is unsure as to whether or not a player is actually hurt, or if the Referee feels that the player will not miss a shift, then the Referee may choose to sway away from the “Black & White” rule book and not assess the Major + GM, but may go to the Minor penalty plus a Game Misconduct.

The key factor with regards to if a Referee will assess a minor, major or match penalty is the severity of the hit, not the actual injury (if any) that may result.  Remember, you may also see a player receive a Major + GM for Checking From Behind even though the player that was checked jumps up immediately and continues into the play.  Remember that it is  the severity, force, intent and location on the back that results in Checking From Behind penalties being assessed.

SUMMARY

Now that you understand everything a Referee must consider when deciding whether or not to assess a checking from behind penalty, and then whether to make it a Minor + GM, Major + GM, or a Match penalty, you can see that it is not an easy call to make, especially when referees don’t have the luxury of using various video angles and an unlimited amount of time to analyze a possible check from behind.

Referees have a split second to factor in all the above points and make their decision based on what they are able to see from their specific position on the ice. Sometimes the referee may be screened by other players, and may not be able to see the entire infraction.

Referees still consider Checking From Behind to be a very serious infraction. They will deal harshly and without hesitation when the action calls for such penalty. However, there are so many things to consider, not the least of which is intent, that it may not be called enough as far as parents and coaches are concerned. There is no doubt, however, that the number of Checking From Behind incidents has been drastically reduced since the introduction of the penalty.

OTHER LEAGUES

This is not to add confusion to the matter, but you must also keep in mind that Minor Hockey has different rules from Amateur or Professional Hockey!

In the OHL (Canadian Hockey League – Major Junior A) and other upper leagues this rule is slightly modified because these leagues are no longer at the minor hockey level - they are now in the amateur/professional category. The minor hockey associations try to protect their participants to a greater extent and thus they create stricter penalties to provide this protection.

As for the OHL, the biggest difference is that the player is not ejected from the game when he receives a minor penalty for checking from behind. In addition, the referee has another option whereby he can issue a double minor penalty for a more sever check from behind, but sill leave the player in the game.

As a result, you may see a higher incidence of checking from behind penalties being called in the OHL than in minor hockey. It doesn’t mean that players are committing this infraction any less at the minor hockey level, it is just that instead of identifying an infraction as a checking from behind, referees are more likely to call boarding, charging or cross-checking if they feel it was without intent or was not of a serious nature. The infractions are similar, but the consequences are different.