A team defends its goal with every ounce of pride and fight it can muster. Sometimes it does so perfectly and wins by a shutout; sometimes it does so less perfectly but still wins. Other times, of course, the other team does the same. But there is one very important unwritten rule in hockey’s code that is never violated without punishment scoring (or trying to score) into the team’s goal at any other time than during play.
The most common example occurs when the whistle is blown just as a player is about to shoot the puck. A smart player will let up and not release the shot. A disturber will let a shot go anyway, at which point the defending team will charge at him and demand an explanation.
Another occurrence happens when a delayed penalty is in progress and one team has an empty net and a sixth attacker on the ice. When the defending team gains possession of the puck, the whistle goes and the penalty is assessed, but heaven forbid if this possession takes place near the vacated goal and the defending player casually smacks the puck into the open net. Again, he’ll be immediately accosted by his opponents with vehemence.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, bench-clearing brawls ensued from another form of empty-net goal. The pre-game warm-up is a time to get ready for the game, of course, but it’s also a time for psychological preparation. Players require differing lengths of time to prepare, and many are superstitious about being the last off the ice or the last to score a goal on their own empty net. It’s a way of setting a positive tone for the rest of the game. Get a final goal during warm-up; get a goal during the game.
However, it is absolutely forbidden to shoot the puck down the ice into the other team’s empty net at the end of warm-up. The centre red line is the battle line during this preparation, and no player or puck is allowed to cross that threshold without repercussions.
The games that went on to prevent such a tactic were incredible. Like some sort of elimination contest, one player after another would fire a puck into his net and skate off, eventually whittling that number down to one or two a side. Sometimes players on the home team felt it was their right to fire a puck the length of the ice into the other team’s empty net, for good luck. Oftentimes, if the player missed the long shot, the fans would boo, knowing this presaged misfortune for the game itself.
But during the playoffs, all bets were off, and visiting players would guard their net until the home team’s last player was off the ice. If the player showed no signs of leaving, the opponent would turn the net around and push it against the end boards, preventing a long shot from going in. Home fans also booed this tactic. Sometimes an opponent would fire the puck into the home team’s net after the last player had left the ice, but that player would be watching from the corridor. Upon seeing this, he’d skate back onto the ice and challenge the player.
Bench-clearing brawls sometimes resulted, but slowly, over time, this empty-net goal tactic faded in importance, and all teams now mutually agree simply never to fire the puck into the other team’s goal at the end of warm-up. Some superstitions die hard, but this one was murder to keep alive.