Illegal substitution or too many men?

A week ago, I wrote about the Crease Violation rule and a number of people told me that it clarified that rule a little. So today I’ll cover another rule that’s frequently misunderstood, Illegal Substitution.

I’ve been asked this question many times in the past: what’s the difference between “illegal substitution” and “too many men”? It came up again last weekend, and my answer was the same as it’s always been: “I dunno”. So I looked over the rule book.

Here’s the thing – according to the rule book, there is no “Too many men” penalty. There is rule 55.3 Too Many Men, but that’s not the description of the penalty, it’s one of the reasons why a goal would be disallowed. The actual rule referring to the case where a team gets this penalty is under Rule 56: Substitution.

Too many men, but I think they'll let this one go

There are three relevant sections: Rule 56.6 says that if the defensive team has too many men on the floor, a delayed penalty is called. Rule 56.7 says that if the offensive team has too many men on the floor ‘for the purpose of a “fast break”‘ then play is stopped and a penalty is given. Rule 56.8 is a little complicated but says that a penalty shot is awarded against the offending team if:

  • insufficient playing time remains in the game to serve the penalty in its entirety (i.e. <2 minutes left in the 4th), OR
  • at any time in overtime, OR
  • the penalty can’t be served in its entirety due to penalties already imposed. I believe this means that if the offending team is already two men down, that’s a penalty shot. But if a team takes any minor penalty when they’re already two men down, that’s a penalty shot.

A violation of the substitution rule, which is Rule 56.4, says that a player entering play must wait for the person he’s replacing to have both feet in the substitution area in front of the bench. Usually if the player is pretty close and the actual play isn’t anywhere near the benches, they’ll let it go. A violation of that rule where the player coming off only has one foot in the box or is a yard away from the box would likely be called “illegal substitution”. If a player leaves the box when the player he’s replacing is twenty feet away, the ref is more likely to call it “too many men”. Anywhere in between, who knows.

So the long and the short of it is: the actual rule is called “illegal substitution”. Sometimes the refs announce the penalty as “illegal substitution” and sometimes it’s “too many men”. They’re the same thing.


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