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Helmet-removal rule: What it means today and moving forward

By Eric Macramalla | Sports Lawyer

NHL previews: Atlantic Division | Metropolitan Division | Central Division | Pacific Division

Recently, Brett Gallant of the New York Islanders and Krys Barch of the New Jersey Devils removed each other's helmets before a fight.

Were they just being polite, helpful and sweet? No. They were doing it to get around the new NHL Rule 46.6, which provides as follows:

Helmets -- No player may remove his helmet prior to engaging in a fight. If he should do so, he shall be assessed a two minute minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Helmets that come off in the course of and resulting from the altercation will not result in a penalty to either player.

For that reason, each player removed the opposing player's helmet.

You could try and argue that the meaning of "no player may remove his helmet prior to engaging in a fight" isn't entirely clear and that it captures situations where a player intentionally allows his helmet to be removed; how he allows it to be removed doesn't matter.

That, however, is a really strained interpretation. The language in Rule 46.6 targets a player removing his own helmet -- and nothing more. So Barch and Gallant did get around the rule in my opinion.

Here is another loophole. Rule 46.6 doesn't allow a player to remove his helmet before "engaging in a fight." So an alternative to a player graciously removing the helmet of an opponent would be to engage in the fight, stop, remove his own helmet, and continue with the fight. The word engage has a pretty broad meaning (to involve oneself) and could include just grabbing the opponent or making really intimidating eye contact.

In order to achieve the apparent goal set out by Rule 46.6, the rule would need to be amended to something like "no player may have his helmet removed at any time prior to a fight by any other player for whatever reason."

That being said, Rule 46.6 is certainly interesting. If the goal of the rule is to enhance player safety, then some may say it doesn't achieve that since it allows for helmets to come off during a fight. That's a fair comment. However, there is more. The league is trying to control what it can, namely, players intentionally removing helmets before a fight. Short of banning fighting, the league can't control what happens next, like helmets (and jerseys) coming off. So the league focuses for now on what it can control to create as safe a work environment for its players while at the same time preserving fighting. So that's why it looks like a halfway rule when in fact it's not.

There has been a shift in culture when it comes to violence in sports. The NFL concussion lawsuits changed things. The Steve Moore lawsuit has changed things. The Derek Boogaard lawsuit has changed things. And with this shift, fans will continue to see changes to the game of hockey, which may look dramatically different in 10 years. Indeed, there might be a new rule completely barring fighting -- whether a player's helmet is on or off.

Eric Macramalla is a partner at a Canadian national law firm and also a sports legal analyst and sports lawyer. You can follow him on Twitter at @EricOnSportsLaw, and his sports law blog is located at www.OffsideSportsLaw.com.

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