Distinct kicking motion

I am inclined to believe that every sport must have at least one peculiar rule. Perhaps it’s related to the complexity necessary to make the game interesting. In American football, taking the knee is odd—and distasteful to some fans. I look forward to learning about other such curiosities. But here I’d like to mention a rule I find particularly intriguing: the distinct kicking motion rule of the National Hockey League (NHL).

The rule is that if the puck bounces off an offensive player’s skate straight into the other side’s net then it counts as a goal unless the player made a “distinct kicking motion”. What does that mean? According to an article in The Hockey News:

Until this season, the rulebook contained the definition that a distinct kicking motion “is one which, with a pendulum motion, the player propels the puck with his skate into the net.” Now that passage in Rule 34.4 38.4 (iv) is gone, replaced by a motion in “which the player propels the puck with his skate into the net,” although if that motion was made by the player while he turned his skate to stop, the goal is allowed.

The motivation for this rule is clear enough: deliberately kicking the puck threatens to turn hockey into soccer. And yet the puck will sometimes unintentionally bounce off a player’s skate. Indeed this was just what I saw on TV in a recent NHL game. My untrained opinion (after seeing probably five replays) was that there was no distinct kicking motion—which also happened to be the referees’ ruling.

What I find curious, however, is this. Given that the puck bounced off the player’s skate into the net, is the lack of a kicking motion evidence that the player had no intention of using his skate to direct the puck? On the contrary: if the player wanted to score using his skate, then in this case not kicking the puck was just the right thing to do!

I see a philosophical dimension here. Consideration of counterfactuals (had the player instead kicked the puck, perhaps it would have missed the net!) suggests that using observed actions to draw conclusions about intentions may be exceedingly challenging.

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