Hockey, roller derby and keeping everyone safe

If you’re a fan of the NHL, or even just watching the news this week, you’ve likely heard how player’s safety has been a hot issue of topic. This hit (viewer discretion),  which shows Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins driving Montreal Canadien Max Pacioretty into the boards and subsequently into divider glass, resulted in a fractured vertebrae and severe concussion for Pacioretty.

Chara was given major penalty for interference and a game misconduct which suspended him from the rest of the game, but no other suspensions or fines were given due to the fact that malicious intent of Chara’s hit driving Pacioretty’s upper body into the glass could not be proven. It was deemed, by some, as incidental contact or simply the follow-through from the initial check; that the check delivered could not be deemed as dangerous.

The hockey world went ballistic, prompting some fans to cancel NHL subscriptions, a major sponsor threatening to pull out and everyone else jumping on either Pacioretty’s or Chara’s side. Even Pacioretty himself went on the record with his distaste for the decision.

I’m a hockey fan, but not nearly as devout as some of my counterparts, so I feel I just don’t have the background knowledge to unbiasedly decide if the NHL’s decision was correct or incorrect.

However, I’m a Habs fan, and I found it difficult to watch the entire ordeal, from the hit to the aftermath. The fact that a young hockey player, who was (and hopefully still) ridiculously promising, now has a long road of recovery ahead while the offending skater is still gliding on the ice with his teammates seems all sorts of unfair. Emotionally, I’m on Pacioretty’s side. I wish him all the best and a speedy recovery.

But this is a roller derby blog so I’m attempting to find some sort of segue in regards to this issue. Next week general managers of NHL teams are going to be gathering to discuss, among other things, hits to the head, concussions and rules in regards to them.

The roller derby community has had their own discussions about the current state of rules. Not so much in how to keep players safer by adding more rules, but by omitting some rules and officials to keep the sport easier to understand for the fans and allow for potentially more aggressive play. Some feel the sport has too many officials (15 skating refs & non-skating officials combined) to make it a valid sport on a professional level and others feel the minor penalty system is simply a get-out-of-jail-free card to do three wrong things before you actually sit out with a penalty. (And it’s true. For example I’ve executed a minor cut intentionally because I knew I wouldn’t have to sit for it.)

***For you non-derby types who read my blog, here’s some official & penalty background***


According to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) rules, it is recommended each bout have:

  • One head referee
  • Two jammer referees
  • Four pack referees
  • (the above all on skates)
  • In addition, you have a head non-skating official, scorekeepers, penalty tracker, penalty timers, scoreboard operator, etc.


Like in hockey, penalties are broken down in various categories and within that there are infractions based on the severity of the penalty.

  • A minor penalty gets no time served off track, but gets recorded.
  • A major penalty is a either a single serious infraction of the rules or when a skater accumulates 4 minor penalties.
  • A major results in a 1 minute sit in the penalty box.


Admittedly, I’m not super-immersed in WFTDA rule talk. I don’t even know if the above two examples in rule changes are even up for consideration within the league. (See below for links to blogs and sites where I’ve researched all my information from.) However, prior to this week, I was somewhat in favour of what the two writers were getting at.

But now, not so much.

I’m sure I’m not the only skater who has used the minor penalty rule to my advantage. But I see now what that minor penalty rule makes me do. It forces me to make a decision as to whether or not that track cut or that minor back block will hinder my team or help it. Perhaps it’s that split-second decision making process that every skater must go through is what is keeping our players safer. If Chara had backed away from that hit a split-second earlier, Pacioretty would be way better off today.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m way off base. If we get rid of the minor penalty system and just focus on major fouls, will that make the game more entertaining for fans? Will it change into more aggressive play? Will everyone’s conduct within the pack remain unchanged for some time because we are all accustomed to the minor system? Will the lines of when to call a major penalty change for the referees as a result? How will the referees determine that line?

I think if the minor system were to be pitched, it would put a huge pressure on our referees. What one ref would call a major elbow, another may consider it as what was once a minor. There would be many more questionable calls and more opportunity for officials to let things slide because the call is now much more subjective. Because the penalty system is more black & white (penalty or no penalty), a ref may choose to let that borderline elbow slide instead of calling it. Referees get barked at by coaches, players and fans with the existing system as it is. In a time when many smaller leagues are hurting for officials, would that kind of pressure make it difficult to retain our most essential league members? The crews who have officiated bouts I’ve played in are very professional, they love what they do and they do it for free, most often traveling on their own time and dime.

The other thought is safety of the skaters. Would removing the minor system turn away some players from roller derby as they would feel less safe or more prone to injury? A minor back block can still injure a player, as can a stumble from a minor low block. The thought that someone wouldn’t get penalized for repeatedly committing those infractions bothers me.

I don’t know about you, but if I received minor elbows consistently from another player in a jam, I’d probably lose my head and do something overly aggressive to stop it. Or maybe that’s the reaction fan and proponents of removing the minor system want.

I’m not sure if I like that.

The equipment we wear versus the surfaces we skate on seem quite minimal compared to our NHL counterparts. However they have a lot more weight, speed and sharp objects attached to their bodies. But the fact that one professional full-contact league is adding rules to protect the players while there is talk from the others within our full-contact league that we should simplify, it just seems backwards.

And I haven’t even covered head shots or concussions, which happen in our game just as much as in the NHL and many derby friends have been affected by.

Tell me what you think…

  • As a player, do you feel safe under the current rule system?
  • If rules were to change to simplify the penalty system, would you feel less safe as a skater?
  • What about refs? Should we have fewer or keep it the same? Would having fewer refs affect outcomes of bouts?
  • If the rules were to change to simplify the penalty system, would referees find it more challenging to officiate a bout? Or would it remain unchanged? Easier?


Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Rules

Tank’s Tirades: Minor penalties make me majorly pissed

How referees are killing flat track roller derby

The official rules of the NHL

TSN’s Bob McKenzie: Which way does the NHL go in the headshot debate?

Bettman: Pacioretty hit was horrific but part of the game

Pacioretty tells TSN he is ‘disgusted’ at lack of suspension

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson delivers message to fans

Head-shot controversy threatens to hit NHL’s wallet

8 thoughts on “Hockey, roller derby and keeping everyone safe

  1. As a skater who has suffered a concussion I do actually agree with simplifying the game.

    In order to eliminate some refs and minor penalties the rules would need a serious revamp of how majors are called. Let me give you a few thing to ponder on this.

    If a skater hits another skater shoulder to shoulder and then lifts their elbow it is a penalty. Most times a major because the skater being hit goes OOP(out of play) Did they go OOP because of the elbow or the shoulder contact? I would argue the shoulder. Is this a dangerous hit? No. Watch how hockey players hit, the elbow coming up is just follow through and balance. I would also say that forearms hits aren’t necesarily dangerous either.

    Now consider a can opener. For non derby and new to derby folk a can opener is a hit performed while in front of a player whereas the hitter will stand up straight and make contact with their shoulder to the hitee’s chest. This motion usually knocks the hitee backwards and if they are lucky on their ass. If they aren’t so lucky head into concrete.

    So tell me how an elbow as a result of a shoulder check should be a penalty when a can opener is a “clean” hit?

    Right now ref calls in any sport are subjective as much as they try to ensure they aren’t. This is because they are humans calling them and not machines. All part of the sport.

    Flat track derby is in it’s infancy and has already seen many rule chamges (check the amount of track cutting during blood on the flat track) and it will continue to evolve. I love the changes I have seen over the past 5 years and look forward to the next 5.

    • Thank you for your comment! Yes, you’re right in that the ref calls are subjective, as in any sport. I guess I was just thinking with them broken down into minor and majors, it helps alleviate the grey area. Either way, I agree if they were to ever eliminate the minors, a full rewrite will be necessary.

      If the league does look at revamping rules and procedures to make it more fan friendly and to make it one day appear on a professional level (aka Olympics) I’m all for it! But not if the safety of the skaters become lessened.

  2. Pingback: Hockey, roller derby and keeping everyone safe « Diary of a Roller … | Elbow

  3. Well written, well considered statements here. It’s good to see you making the connection between what’s happening in derby and what’s happening in other sports. It’s always funny to go from watching derby and disputing rules/changes to watching something like Hockey where they’re still actively discussing rule changes (most recently No Touch Icing has become a big topic- another safety-driven change).

    I think ultimately, though- and I’ve made this argument on the RDIT article you link- douchebag moves are gonna happen regardless of the rules. Chara’s hit was unnecessary and ridiculous- it wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t an out of control player who was allowed to screw up due to lax rules, it was player getting caught up in the game and making a poor judgement call- that’s going to happen regardless of what the rules state and how they change… unfortunately.

    You should also look back at hockey’s history and how they revamped the rules a couple decades ago to make it less complicated, speed up play, and increase scoring- it’s not too different from the changes we’re talking for flat track derby, really. Hockey was losing fanbase/market share because it was too hard for fans to get into.

    Again, great discussion you’ve started here and kudos for really fleshing out the issue.

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I am merely an infant in the roller derby universe and wanted to get my thoughts down on (cyber) paper as I’m surrounded by so very many hockey fans who have been living and breathing this topic for the last few days. You’re very right, guys and gals are going to get fired up regardless of what contact sport they play. The evolution of derby rules will be an interesting one to watch for sure and hopefully the smaller leagues and larger leagues will all be able to benefit with better game play and more fans!!!! (While keeping everyone safe, of course!) 🙂

  4. I’ve been Penalty tracker at a couple of bouts and I can’t imagine one person trying to do it all, need to have two there. They could take care of the white board though and eliminate that one.
    As for the skating Outside Track Officials although there are up to 3 or 4 of them they all sub in so there is only one actually officiating at any one time. That’s one reffing position that happens to be covered by three people.
    The reason for this as I found out in trying to outside pack ref in a scrimmage is that it’s too hard to keep up with a fast pack as you have to skate farther than they do. I’m in pretty good shape and am pretty quick but I can’t keep that pace up for a whole bout.

  5. Officiating always will be and always has been an ‘in the eye of the beholder’ sort of thing. What the ref sees the fans and players may not see, what fans or players see, the ref may not see, and if the ref does not see it, they can’t call it.
    Having yet to play in a bout, I can’t comment on how I feel under the current system, and how I would feel if it was simplified.
    I, however, don’t have an issue with the number of refs. The more refs on the track the better chances that something that should be called is seen, and the better chance that it’s seen by more than one official.
    I imagine that if the system was changed, it would be harder, at least to begin with, for the officials. They learned under one system and would then be asked to learn a new system. Beyond that, who knows whether or not they would find it difficult.

  6. Pingback: News Roundup :: March 31st, 2011

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