Questions of Ethics

A couple of weeks ago, a former college hockey player made headlines for his gesture of good sportsmanship. Greg Rota, who played at New Hampshire, seemed to have led a suburban Boston high school to the Massachusetts State Golf Championship. But on the bus ride back to school, he noticed an error on a player’s scorecard. He notified the authorities and, in the process, gave up the championship.

Rota’s players may have been saddened by the news that the championship they had celebrated on the course now belonged to someone else. But the coach who did the right thing provided them with a more valuable lesson. Given that Rota played for the program that has rested in the hands of Charlie Holt, Bob Kullen and now Dick Umile, it is no surprise that he knew what to do.

Sometimes the decisions we have to make are not so clear. I recall a question put to hockey coaches that posed the following dilemma:

“You are in the third period of a tie game against a major rival. You are battling for first place late in the year and this is the first of a two-night series. Midway through that final period, you see your top player give a quick spear to an opponent behind the play. The player goes down. The referees didn’t see it.


a) sit your player down for the rest of the game.

b) let him finish the game but sit him out the next game.

c) sit him down the rest of the game and Saturday night’s game too (like a DQ’d player would.)

d) you talk to him about what he did but don’t bench him for either game.

e) do nothing.”

I believe that most coaches, particularly at the college level, would take some sort of action against the player. But what about coaches at the high school or youth hockey level? Would they? Or would they rationalize that it was the referee’s job to make that call, not theirs?

Let’s approach this from another angle: What is the difference between “cheating” and “gamesmanship”? As a member of the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee for the past four years, I suggested that “diving” was akin to cheating. It was an attempt to create a false impression of what was happening on the ice to draw a penalty that may or may not have been warranted. Others countered that it was a tactic like anything else, one that would draw a penalty if detected. That’s gamesmanship, some say.

“Hey, if a player trips a guy who is going in on a breakaway, we call that a good play,” says a friend. “The rule book doesn’t say you can’t do it. It just tells you what the penalty is if you do it and get caught.”

“But there’s no deception in that trip,” I say. “You do it knowing that you will probably get caught but you willingly take the penalty to prevent the breakaway.”

“What difference does that make? The player’s job is to try to win. The referee is there to call the book.”

There, in a nutshell, is where many people are today on this issue. Do whatever you can get away with. You don’t think so? Remember this when you do your taxes.

This discussion reminded me of a situation that occurred during my junior year in college. Playing goal in a game against Brown, I saw the puck go over the line and pulled it out before an avalanche of players fell on me. The referee blew the whistle and came over to help separate me from the pile of excess bodies.

As he reached down to get the puck from me, he said, “Was that in?” I was taken aback by the question and hesitated. One of my defensemen looked at me as if to say, “Tell him ‘No’.”

I said, “No.”

After the game, I was bothered by the exchange. I can’t remember if I was upset that I lied or that the referee put me in the situation where I felt I had to. I asked my coach, Bill Cleary, what he would have done.

Cleary, one of the nation’s top referees before he entered coaching, said, “You should have told him it was his call to make.”

What made me any different than Greg Rota? He was the only person to discover that the scorecard was wrong. If he says nothing, his team wins the title. I say nothing, the goal doesn’t count. Few people, if any, would expect a goalie in this situation to own up to the goal. It’s not his burden to tell the truth there, is it? That’s a tactic that is expected of goalies. But where should we draw a line? What distinguishes a smart tactic from an unethical act?

Long before the 15-second faceoff rule, coaches would stall to get their best player or top line more rest before sending them out to play. In an NCAA quarterfinal game at Clarkson’s old Walker Arena many years ago, when Wisconsin had Sean Hill, a great defenseman who went on to a long NHL career, Badgers coach Jeff Sauer was clearly delaying his line changes to rest Hill and then get him back on the ice. Another universally accepted tactic.

Finally, referee Matt Shegos said to Sauer, “Coach, I’ll give you a choice. You can take your timeout or I’m giving you a delay of game penalty.”

“You can’t force me to take my timeout,” countered Sauer.

“No, but I can give you that penalty,” said Shegos. “So what will it be?”

The timeout was called.

It seems that different people allow for different tactics. What about the guy who goes down hard and draws not just a penalty but a major? The trainer hops over the boards. The crowd is hushed. Then, as soon as the “5:00” goes up on the scoreboard, the guy bounces up and takes his position on the power play. Is this ethical?

What about the goalie who gets minimally brushed by a forechecker and does a “spin-a-rama” to draw a penalty? Or the player who holds the opponent’s stick and draws a hook? Are these tactics to be applauded when pulled off successfully, or does a coach have a responsibility to tell his players to cut it out and play by the book?

As a coach of young goalies, I have sometimes wrestled with certain tactics that I could teach them. Parents pay me to teach their children at summer camps and sometimes at winter clinics. If I have an advanced level goalie in front of me, should I introduce such things as strategically knocking the net off its pins to get a whistle? Or how to knock a guy off balance in front of the net with a well-placed blocker behind the knee? These are not exactly examples of fair play. On the other hand, they are paying me to help their kids with whatever I know can be helpful to a kid at that level. I have decided not to include these types of things in my normal curriculum. But if the parent or kid asks?

All of us are capable of a really good rationalization from time to time. Here’s one:

In today’s game, there is more contact with the goalie than ever before. The goalie who trusts that the official will make the right calls and allow him the space he is supposed to be afforded is often disappointed. If unnecessary and illegal contact results in a goalie being pushed back into the crossbar in such a way that he loses sight of the puck, he is immediately vulnerable if a shot comes on goal in the ensuing seconds. In those situations, isn’t the goalie justified in falling back and knocking the net off its moorings to get a whistle? One illegal act temporarily handicaps the goalie; the goalie counters with an illegal act of his own, just to even things up.

I have come to the conclusion that the reason it is difficult to distinguish between the solid tactic and the unethical act is that often, to be honest, they are both. By a strict definition, when you deliberately break the rule to gain an advantage that might help you win, you are being unethical. However in today’s culture, we value winning so highly that many such acts are looked on with admiration. In fact, many people think of a competitor as weak if he fails to “pull out all stops.” I believe that’s called a euphemism.

Lest you think I am trying to pass myself off as above this, let me make another public confession. One of the proudest moments in my post-college, senior hockey career came in a tournament in Montreal several years ago. If we won our pool, we advanced to the final game, which would be played at the old Montreal Forum. I recall that we had former Boston Bruin defenseman Gary Doak on our team. He was a great player and an even better guy.

Nursing a one-goal lead late in the game, our team was under attack as time wound down. I moved out to face a shot from the right point, made the save, and in the process, fell down with an opposing player landing on top of me. The puck drifted out toward the left point.

I knew right away that even if the guy got off of me, I wouldn’t be able to get up and over to cover the open net. They were going to tie the game. Then I got an idea. As that player was attempting to get off of me, I held on to his leg, shouting loud enough for the referee to hear, “Get off of me! Hey! Get off of me!” The poor bastard was trying to do just that but I wouldn’t let him.

As anticipated, their left defenseman scored into an open net. But the referee waved off the goal and issued an interference penalty to the guy who was on top of me. You should have seen the look he shot me.

We got to the Forum but lost the final. And I remember as we were getting dressed after the game, somebody looked over at the good-natured Doak and said, “Gee, Gary, you still can’t win a big game in this building.”


In last month’s column, I made reference former Brown coach Jim Fullerton and “The Diamond.” I mistakenly referred to it as a “power play strategy.” Well, I heard from Jim’s son, also named Jim, and he set me straight.

“I recall Dad explaining to me his Diamond Defense that I believe he used at Brown when his teams were really undermanned, probably around 1958-61. Here’s what I recall about this tactic: when down a man, a forward would chase the puck carrier in the offensive zone then pick up a free wing in the neutral zone. The two defensemen would ideally pick up the puck carrier in the neutral zone. Behind the defense, he kept his other forward, who would be closer to getting the puck and sending it back down the ice. His skaters were not as fast so he stacked the defensive zone rather than risk two slow skaters against the usual high-scoring line when the opponent had a man advantage. This ploy helped prevent a breakaway and retrieved the puck (if dumped) before the opponents could set up a man advantage play.”

So, when Jim Fullerton was yelling for “The Diamond,” he was setting up his Brown defensive strategy. When “Snooks” Kelley countered with, “Look out for ‘The Diamond’,” well, we’re still not sure what he was expecting from his Eagles.

Joe Bertagna is the Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association and commissioner of the Hockey East Association.