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From the Archives: New Rule, Old Beef

There was much hoopla when the NHL introduced a penalty when a player closed their hand on a puck. As Stan Fischler points out, it was an unpopular decision around the league.
Puck Clutching

That hoary bromide, "Everything old is new again," snugly fits National Hockey League rule changes, then and now.

I discovered that fact of hockey life 70 years ago when I received my October 19, 1951 copy of the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The complaint was right there in the headline PUCK CLUTCHING BAN TOO SEVERE. The subhead reads NEED QUICK CHANGE.

The story, written by Maple Leafs beat writer Al Nickleson, referred to a then new rule which stated that an automatic penalty be called against a player who closes his hand on the puck.

Before being officially implemented, the new rule was tested by NHL in exhibition games. The Lords of Hockey agreed that it should be a "go" at the start of 1951-52.

Nickleson was one who studied the reaction after three Leafs games and his reaction -- to put it mildly -- hardly was mild. Or to put it more vividly, Big Al flipped out all over his typewriter prose.

"It's ridiculous," snapped Nickleson in print and to anyone who might ask him face-to-face. Then, he further explained:

"Here's a petty rule which could and will decide games, thus nullifying the true ability of a team in the records. It's much too small to have that authority.

"The punishment of having a team not at full strength for two minutes because of such an infraction far exceeds the crime. It should be thrown out right now!"

Exhibit A to substantiate his argument Nickleson noted that such a "cheap" penalty against Boston defenseman Guy Kyle almost cost the Bruins a loss against the Leafs.

But complaints transcended the hand-over-puck punishment. Referee-In-Chief Carl Voss had issued a "Get Tough" policy in a big-time bid to cut down the risk of injuries.

Voss: "We also want to do away with the wrestling and grappling type of play which slows up the game."

Nickleson didn't like that at all. He wondered out loud why Voss didn't institute a crackdown on elbowing and kneeing.

"We've seen far more elbowing than interference," the Globe's hockey critic ranted on. "In the last game here there was at least one elbow prominently threatening an opposing face on almost every play near the boards."

Nickleson claimed that "the high-sticking edict" wasn't being enforced as rigidly as rules pertaining to hooking or holding.

As any contemporary media type will tell you, a running gripe these days -- as before -- is about the officials alleged lack of consistency. An ironically similar critique was leveled seven decades ago.

I know that for a fact because it's right here in my scrapbook.

"Enforce all the rules," Al Nickleson wrote 'way back then. "They were made to be enforced, but make it uniform. Right now, the hooking and roughing is being called to the letter.

"But too many elbows and high sticks are being overlooked and missed! And the new puck-in-hand rule is the cheapest penalty since the rules demanded a minor for shooting the puck over the boards."

Some critics today believe that the current shooting-the-puck-over-the-glass infraction is a pretty darn cheap one as well.

Then again, if the clipping from my old Globe and Mail offers a moral, it must be something like this:

No matter what the era may be, neither the rule-makers nor the refs can win!


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