If you watch or play hockey, chances are that you have a good idea of what interference entails but the penalty can still be confusing for hockey enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Adding to the confusion is the different scenarios in which interference can be called. So let’s jump into the question at hand:
What is interference in hockey?
Interference is the act of a player using their body, with no intention of playing the puck, to impede an opposing player who doesn’t have possession of the puck. Many things can result in interference being called, such as making contact with the goalie. Interference is typically a minor penalty.
The concept of interference can be confusing, even before you start factoring in all the different scenarios in which it can be called. That is where this article comes in handy! We will break down all the ins-and-outs of the penalty for you in one convenient place.
Interference in Hockey
When interference is called in a game, it is important to note that several different types of interference can be called.
Typically, these will be explicitly stated by the referee and recorded on the score sheet as such, but sometimes, especially in youth hockey games, the call will simply be “interference” regardless of the situation.
Types of interference calls include general interference, goaltender inference, bench interference, and interference by the goaltender. Each of these calls has different “penalties” associated with them, respective to the severity of the offense.
General interference is the simplest and most commonly seen type of interference in regular gameplay.
As defined by USA Hockey rule 625, “Interference is defined as when a player uses his body (“pick” or “block”) to impede the progress of an opponent (non-puck carrier) with no effort to play the puck, maintain normal foot speed or maintain an established skating lane.”
This is a long way of saying that interference is when a non-puck carrier from either team impedes a player of the other team (who does not carry the puck), by making physical contact with them.
In most cases, this is an attempt to keep the opposing player from getting to a free puck or getting into a position from which it would be easier to score.
From this understanding of the rule, it may be concluded that there are many missed interference calls throughout the average hockey game. But the determining factor is the second half of rule 625, wherein it specifies that the player has gone out of his or her way to impede the progress of an opponent.
The stating of this rule has led to some debate and eventual unwritten understandings of the rule that will be covered in a later section on the subjectivity of this rule.
Goaltender interference is the next most common type of interference you’ll see when watching hockey. Contrary to what the name may lead some to believe, this form of interference is not committed by the goaltender, but rather against them.
This rule is defined as a subsection of rule 625 in the USA Hockey rulebook, which is why some referees officiating youth hockey games will make the call under the overarching penalty of “interference.”
Being that the goalkeeper is a distinctive position on the ice who has both special privileges and restrictions, it makes sense that there would be a special set of interference rules regarding when a player of the opposing team impedes the goaltender’s ability to perform their specific role.
The most important factor in grasping whether or not goaltender interference has occurred is an understanding of the crease, which is a semi-circle painted onto the ice in front of the net that extends vertically to the height of the net.
While the attacking team has possession of the puck, no member of that team is allowed to pass through, be in, or have their stick in this crease while the goaltender is in contact with the crease, unless the puck enters the crease first.
This rule is far less subjective than the one previously described regarding general interference, and it also inhibits opponents from impeding the goaltender from moving in virtually any direction.
Interference isn’t called if one of the goalie’s teammates performs an action that leads to the interference. I.E. a defender pushing an opposing forward into his goalie.
Another type of interference is ‘bench interference’. Bench interference is not called often but it can usually be bookmarked under several other rules’ violations.
Nonetheless, this penalty may be called when a player on either the team bench or the penalty bench makes physical contact with the puck or an opposing player, impeding their movement in any way with their body or stick. This happens far less often from the penalty bench since there is glass impeding the player in the box.
Generally, this rule is reserved for when this action is thought to be performed in a retaliatory effort against an opposing player, in which case it oftentimes is called for “roughing”, or another more intentional penalty.
It usually is not called when a player accidentally deflects the puck with his stick while on the bench, though in such a scenario, the play is whistled dead.
Finally, interference by the goaltender is a call rarely seen at all, and when it does occur, it is most likely at the very end of a game when a goaltender is being pulled or returning to the net.
This offense is called when a goalie leaves his or her stick, or any portion of the stick, in front of the net to intentionally impede the other team from scoring a goal while they are not in the crease.
What Is the Penalty for Interference in Hockey?
The most common result of interference being called is a 2-minute minor penalty. This means the offending player must sit in the penalty box and watch on as their team plays short-handed for two minutes.
This is not typically the case for goaltender interference. If an opposing player impedes the goalie’s ability to move within the crease and is caught, the resulting penalty is a face-off at the nearest neutral-zone face-off dot.
While this is certainly less severe than a minor penalty, it can be detrimental to a team’s offensive attack and will diminish any momentum gained in the preceding time of possession.
There is another caveat to goaltender interference: if a goal was scored, but there was deemed to be interference of the goalkeeper by an opposing player, the goal will be waved off with a resulting neutral-zone face-off.
This is an even more deflating penalty, especially in a close, low-scoring game. There also can be situations in which the interference is severe enough, or with enough obvious intent, that it does warrant a minor penalty.
Any time bench interference is called, the player committing the peanlty is assessed a 2-minute minor penalty. Again, this penalty is relatively rare and is most often the result of a lack of discipline and is committed in the heat of the moment.
The penalty for interference by the goalkeeper is a 2-minute minor penalty. This penalty is amplified when it occurs to prevent what the officials deem to have been an obvious and imminent goal by the opposing team.
In this case, the opposing team is awarded a goal. This may be the most severe of all the penalties assessed for any type of interference in hockey, and it may also be why it is so rare.
NHL Interference Rule
The official NHL rule is filed under the category of ‘restraining fouls’ and is rule #56.
In the rule book, there are even more caveats than what is laid out by USA Hockey regarding the specific nature of the call – however, the basic principle remains the same: “A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who interferes with or impedes the progress of an opponent who is not in possession of the puck.”
The rule also calls for officials to adhere to a strict standard of what is deemed an interference penalty regardless of where it takes place on the ice.
The major difference between the NHL and other rule authorities regarding interference in hockey is that there is the potential for a penalty shot to be awarded.
When a player is carrying the puck and is interfered with from behind, with no one between himself and the goaltender, the result is a penalty shot.
Is Interference a Subjective Call in Hockey?
Many scenarios can play out within a single ice hockey game and the rules are there to provide a structure that upholds fair play and discerns the better team on any given night.
Because of this, the rules cannot completely define the outcome of every situation; thus, there is a need for officials who understand the rules and how they should be applied within the context of any given game.
The rulebook lends authority to referees to make calls based on their best judgment.
While there is a strict definition of what constitutes an interference penalty, there will always be some level of subjectivity to how it applies to a living, breathing, game of ice hockey.