What is the hand pass rule in hockey?

In the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs controversy reigned in Game 3 between San Jose and St. Louis. San Jose won the game on an illegal hand pass in overtime that allowed the team to take a 2-1 lead in the series. Fortunately for the NHL the controversy turned out to be moot as St. Louis went onto win the series. But it left a lot of fans wondering what are the rules around hand passes in the NHL.

What is the hand pass rule in hockey? A player can catch the puck out of the air, but they must immediately drop the puck – they are not allowed to skate with it. The player can also bat the puck out of the air or slide it along the ice to a team in the neutral or defensive zone, but never the offensive zone. 

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Overview of the NHL hand pass rule

Here are the NHL hand pass rules outlined in the NHL rulebook (I’ll breakdown the rules into actual human language and specific game situations after): 

67.1 Handling Puck – A player shall be permitted to stop or “bat” a puck in the air with his open hand, or push it along the ice with his hand, and the play shall not be stopped unless, in the opinion of the Referee, he has deliberately directed the puck to a teammate in any zone other than the defending zone, in which case the play shall be stopped and  a face-off conducted (see Rule 79 – Hand Pass). Play will not be stopped for any hand pass by players in their own defending zone.

79.1 Hand Pass – A player shall be permitted to stop or “bat” a puck in the air with his open hand, or push it along the ice with his hand, and the play shall not be stopped unless, in the opinion of the Referee, he has directed the puck to a teammate.

A player shall be permitted to catch the puck out of the air but must immediately place it or knock it down to the ice. If he catches it and skates with it, either to avoid a check or to gain a territorial advantage over his opponent, a minor penalty shall be assessed for “closing his hand on the puck” under Rule 67 – Handling Puck.

Legal hand vs. illegal hand passes

There are legal and illegal types of hand passes in hockey.  Let’s look at both. 

Let’s start off by looking at the San Jose hand pass against St. Louis in the Stanley Cup playoffs

As you can see in the video Timo Meier bats the puck that is in the air to his teammate who then passes it over to Erik Karlsson for the goal.

This is clearly a hand pass.

Now, it is an illegal hand pass because it takes place in San Jose’s offensive zone, and the play should have been whistled down immediately. No penalty should have been called on the play, but the right call would have been a stoppage in play with a faceoff. 

However, if the same play was made by San Jose in their defensive zone then the play is perfectly legal and the play could be allowed to continue. 

The two legal types of hand passes that occur are a player batting the puck out of the air to his teammate in the defensive zone, and a player who is on the ice and hits the puck to his teammate, who, again, is in the defensive zone.  

No hand passes are allowed in the neutral zone or the offensive zone. 

When you catch the puck how long can you hold it?  

Well, you can hold it for no time. If the player catches a puck in the air they must immediately drop it to their stick.

A player is not permitted to catch it and then throw it to one of their teammates, or skate with the puck after they have caught the puck.

I read that someone said a player can hold it for three seconds. This is so wrong I do not know where to start. But, no! No, no, no, no! A player cannot hold the puck for three seconds. A player can skate the length of the ice in almost three seconds – this would fundamentally alter the way the game is played.

Instead, the real rule is if a player catches the puck and skates with it they will be called for a two minute minor for closing their hand over the puck. 

Is a goal scored as a result of a hand pass reviewable? 

They are now! Up until the start of the 2019-2020 season a potential hand pass was not allowed to be reviewed by video.

The NHL was so thankful that they escaped the controversy in the San Jose – St. Louis playoff series being decided by a hand pass that they changed the reviewable goal rules in the offseason.

Any goal that is expected to have been caused by a hand pass in the offensive zone is now reviewable by video. If the play during the San Jose – St. Louis series could have been reviewed with video then it would have been 100% called back.

However, if the hand pass happens in the neutral zone before the goal, and is missed by the refs, that play is not reviewable. Only if the hand pass occurs in the defensive zone will the play be reviewable. 

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