Nobody wants to get hurt in hockey, but it inevitably happens. While a little pushing and shoving is to be expected, some actions can go too far. One of the most dangerous physical fouls in the game is “boarding,” a penalty that’s called when a player pushes another player into the boards of the hockey rink. It might sound simple, but there’s a lot of discretion when it comes to making the call.
According to the 2017-2018 Official NHL Rulebook, boarding is a penalty that:
Shall be imposed on any player who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.
Based on the degree of violence, the referee can call a minor penalty (two minutes in the box), a major penalty (five minutes in the box) or a game misconduct (he’s out for the rest of the game) on the offending player. The game misconduct call usually involves injury to the face or head of the opposing player.
Although it’s not part of the rule, if a skater leaves their feet or takes more than three steps before the hit or check, the ref will usually consider the offense to be boarding. More often, they’ll assess the injury first.
With so much discretion in the rule, deciding if a hit is boarding or not may raise some questions. These clips show how dangerous the offense can be but also the difficulty in determining which penalty to assign.
In this game between the St. Louis Blues and the Minnesota Wild, Kevin Shattenkirk crosschecks Ryan Carter from behind, sending him face-first into the boards. The announcer notes the reaction that Shattenkirk clearly didn’t intend to hurt Carter, but the resulting injury to Carter’s face buttoned up the call for boarding.
This clip shows Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin plowing over the Chicago Blackhawks’ Brian Campbell, who then hits the boards. Although Ovechkin seems to ask Campbell if he’s ok, the shaken player takes several moments to recover from the hit. Campbell continued to play but the call was still major boarding.
A final example during a Buffalo Sabres game against the New York Rangers illustrates just how costly boarding can be. Patrick Kaleta was suspended for five games and paid a penalty of over $76,000 for boarding against Brad Richards. As fans watched replays of Richards’ neck crashing into the boards, the announcer called it, “the most dangerous play in hockey.”