Is Pregame Sheep Slaughter Covered Under the Umbrella of the NHL Rule Book?

As many in the hockey world are already aware of, Barys Astana, a KHL team based out of Kazakhstan, recently slaughtered a sheep on its home ice before a practice.

There’s no doubt that this is a savvy move. It’s well documented that hockey players are a superstitious bunch. From pregame routines, to consuming specific food and drink, to arriving at the rink at a specific time, hockey guys will do whatever it takes to get the universe working in their favor. However, when you’re in a position like Barys Astana, riding a 5 game losing streak and sitting at 10th in your conference, the question becomes not whether your superstitions have been effective, but what additional superstitions will it take to turn the tide. With the season in full swing and the playoffs fast approaching, there’s no time to lose. You can either beat around the bush by using new equipment and switching up your pregame drills, or go all in and slaughter a grown mammal on the ice. The last thing you want is to find yourself wondering what could have been at the end of the season. Hockey is a game of commitment, and nothing screams commitment like a ritualistic Kazakh animal sacrifice.

The NHL has always been a copycat league. Now half way through the season, teams on the outside of the playoff picture looking in will inevitably become more and more desperate. Now that Barys Astana has broken the glass ceiling and introduced sheep slaughter to the hockey world, it’s quite possible that a desperate NHL team may follow suit in an attempt to vault themselves into playoff relevance.

Regardless of this strategy’s effectiveness from the standpoint of the individual team, the NHL as a league cannot allow this to become a common practice. In a league that is constantly striving to find new ways to increase its popularity and relevance worldwide, the popularization of animal sacrifice would be a PR disaster. Sports is a family industry, and most folks aren’t going to take their kids to the rink with the looming possibility that they’ll be exposed to grotesque butchery. It just doesn’t sell.

The looming question is whether or not the NHL rule book in its current state gives the league and its officials the power to prevent pregame animal slaughter. To solve this, I’ve poured through the NHL rule book and picked out a few pieces of language that may give officials the power to enforce a “no-sacrifice” policy. This way, the league will not have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops that it would take to add specific language outlawing live animal sacrifice.

Rule 8.3-Blood

A player who is bleeding or who has visible blood on his equipment or body shall be ruled off the ice at the next stoppage of play. Such player shall not be permitted to return to play until the bleeding has been stopped and the cut or abrasion covered (if necessary). It is required that any affected equipment and/or uniform be properly decontaminated or exchanged.

The easiest way for the league to punish a team that commits on-ice animal slaughter is to start with its blood policy. If the ice is not properly cleaned and decontaminated following the sacrifice, the league has clearly defined grounds to take action. Unfortunately, this rule does not give the league any power if the team committing the sheep sacrifice takes scrupulous measures to ensure the ice is properly taken care of following the deed. However, the rule at least sets a precedent that teams which attempt such an act will be held under scrutiny.

Rule 53.5-Throwing Equipment: Match Penalty

If a player attempts to or deliberately injures an opponent by throwing a stick or any other object or piece of equipment at an opposing player, Coach or non-playing club person, he shall be assessed a match penalty. If injury results from the thrown object, a match penalty must be assessed for deliberate injury of an opponent.

The rule book never defines whether a “non-playing club person” must be a human. Therefore, the league may be able to argue that a sheep (and any other animal intended to be used for sacrifice) falls under this category. Under these grounds, the NHL would be able to assess a match penalty to any player who carries out a sacrifice on the ice. A ceremonial knife clearly falls under the category of “any other object or piece of equipment” and, in my opinion, having your throat cut and bleeding out on the ice in the name of tradition qualifies as an injury. The one loophole is that this rule would only prevent players from conducting the sacrifice, as it does not include any language that allows the league to punish coaches, fans, or other team personnel who commit such an act.

Rule 63.4-Objects Thrown on Ice

In the event that objects are thrown on
the ice that interfere with the progress of the game, the Referee shall blow the whistle and stop the play and the puck shall be faced-off at a face-off spot in the zone nearest to the spot where play is stopped. When objects are thrown on the ice during a stoppage in play, including after the scoring of a goal, the Referee shall have announced over the public address system that any further occurrences will result in a bench minor penalty being assessed to the home Team.

If a sheep doesn’t walk onto the ice under its own will, and is instead carried or led, this could constitute “throwing” as the term is not concretely defined in the rule book. Moreover, the debris that results from a sacrifice, such as entrails and wool, could potentially disrupt the progress of the game. Therefore, if a referee announces over the public address system that animal slaughter will result in a minor penalty, he then gives himself the power to assess a minor penalty for any sacrifices thereafter. One major flaw with enforcing this rule is that the pregame announcement banning animal sacrifice may in itself be unsettling and off-putting to fans. Moreover, this rule would only allow officials to dole out a minor penalty. Desperate teams may be willing to kill off one two minute penalty if it gives them the ability to kill off one sacrificial sheep.

Rule 75.1-Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Players and non-playing Club personnel are responsible for their conduct at all times and must endeavor to prevent disorderly conduct before, during or after the game, on or off the ice and any place in the rink. The Referees may
assess penalties to any of the above team personnel for failure to do so.

It wouldn’t take too much of a stretch to claim that ceremoniously cutting open a live animal on the ice could be described as “disorderly conduct.” This rule is quite open ended and therefore gives the officials the power to penalize a team for sacrificing a sheep if they deem that it was done in a disorderly manner. However, the open ended nature of this rule is a double edged sword, as it puts the call at the complete discretion of the referee. Sure, the referee could certainly choose to crack down on live sacrifice, but he could equally choose to turn the other cheek and would not be held accountable under the rule book.


There is clearly existing language in the rule book that would allow the league to enforce a no-sacrifice policy. However, it is equally clear that the existing rules have an abundance of loopholes and loose ends that need to be tied up for such a policy to be strictly enforced. In the short term, the league can use its existing rules to prevent animal slaughter for the remainder of the season, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. At the end of the season, when league officials, ownership, and management have the time to meet up and discuss rule changes that will make the game more appealing to the consumer, they should strongly consider adding “prevention of pregame animal sacrifice” to the itinerary.