The Crease

The Area Directly in Front of the Goalie

Ice hockey goalie defending goal net.
David Madison/Photographer's Choice

In the NHL, the crease -- also known as the "goal crease" -- is the area of ice directly in front of the net, identified by a red border and blue interior. An attacking player is not allowed to precede the puck into the crease, though the referee is instructed to use his discretion in enforcing this rule.

Background

The crease is the goalie's turf -- and attacking players are not allowed to enter the area unless they are in possession of the puck.

According to the NHL Official's Association: "If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed."

There are exceptions. The crease rule is, essentially, a way to protect the goalie, particularly his ability to defend against an attempted shot on goal. But, the crease rule has led to some controversy in the past, leading to changes, giving the referees wider discretion in enforcement and interpretation.

Brett Hull's 'No Goal'

In the 1999 Stanley Cup Final -- during a tense game six between the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres that was tied 1-1 -- Brett Hull scored a late goal while his skate was just barely in the crease. Yet, the goal was allowed to stand, giving the the Stars the win -- and the series. The ruling to allow the goal generated quite a bit of controversy as well as the rules change.

Here's what happened: 

  • With his skate, Hull kicked the puck forward to his stick. But as he was kicking the puck, his left skate slid into the blue paint. Hull seemed to be guilty of a crease violation: He was in the crease, the puck wasn't.
  • Then, with his left skate still planted in the crease, Hull shot again -- and scored. The Stars celebrated; the Sabres protested, assuming the goal would be disallowed due to a crease violation. It was not; the goal stood and the Stars won the Stanley Cup that year.

    The Justification

    After the game, Bryan Lewis, NHL Supervisor of Officials, explained:

    "A puck that rebounds off the goalie, the goal post or an opposing player is not deemed to be a change of possession, and therefore Hull would be deemed to be in possession or control of the puck, allowed to shoot and score a goal even though the one foot would be in the crease in advance of the puck.

    "Hull had possession and control of the puck. The rebound off the goalie does not change anything. It is his puck then to shoot and score albeit a foot may or may not be in the crease prior to. Did he or did he not have possession and control? Our view was yes, he did. He played the puck from his foot to his stick, shot and scored."

    Clearly, that explanation leaves a lot of room for doubt. That incident -- and similar situations -- led to changes in the crease rule.

    The Change

    The basic crease rule has remained the same, as the NHL Official Rules guide for 2015-2016 notes: If players on the attacking team precede the puck into the crease prior to the goal being scored, it is considered an off-sides violation, and the goal will be disallowed.

    But, officials now have more discretion in making a ruling depending on how the puck entered the crease.

    As the NHLOA notes on its website: If an attacking player is standing in the goal crease when the puck enters the crease then crosses the goal line, "in no way does he affect the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal." The result -- despite an apparent crease violation -- is a goal, notes the organization. In other words, a crease violation is not always a crease violation -- it depends on how the official sees it.