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College Hockey:
Commentary: A Rule Change We Don’t Need

Rule changes.

Those two words make coaches bristle, especially ones who know they are at the helm of programs that do not have a level playing field when it comes to getting elite athletes into their programs.

Some rule changes help the game. You can make a case that the elimination of the clutching and grabbing has helped the game flow better. You can also argue that no player deserves a penalty if his stick is parallel to the ice and barely touches an opposing player and has no effect on the player with the puck.

There is not one rule change that players, coaches, fans and media will all like or agree with. For the most part, the NCAA has made college hockey pretty entertaining with some of the standard of play initiatives it has implemented. Now comes the new rule it is debating, one my colleague Brian Sullivan wrote a terrific piece on here on USCHO.

Sullivan made a great decision to call Frank Serratore for his opinion because Frank shoots it straight from the hip. He had some strong comments about why this rule isn’t a great idea, as did Seth Appert of Rensselaer.

“If power-play percentages go up exponentially — and they’re certainly not going to go down — I’m afraid that the referees are going to become reluctant to call penalties at certain junctures of the game,” Serratore told Sullivan in the story. “We could end up having fewer penalties in a game, not because the game is any cleaner, but because the referees are reluctant to call it because the power plays are having such a bigger impact.”

For the last few years, CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos and director of CCHA officials Steve Piotrowski have been very clear that the time had come to change the culture of calling penalties. Both have been very clear in saying that what is a penalty in the early part of the first period should still be a penalty in the latter stages of a tie game. Why is it a trip at 2-1 in the opening stanza but not a trip with three minutes to go in a 2-2 playoff game?

There is a ton of merit to that argument, and it is a really good point. I’m not big on cheap calls in pivotal moments but it is hard to argue that the same infraction will be determined to be a penalty at one time and not at another.

The only real backlash I have been told by coaches is that calls are just a bit ticky tack under the current system, but they are learning to live with it. That has produced more penalties at times and that leads to this rule issue.

Icing the puck is a time-honored tradition when killing a penalty. It is a defensive tactic that allows a team, despite being shorthanded, to remove the pressure on its own defensive zone. The argument floated by some on the rules committee is that why do we penalize a team with a man disadvantage but then allow them to ice the puck, which they couldn’t do normally?

Appert made a great case for that with his points on player fatigue and the possibility of fans getting hurt when the shorthanded team fires a puck out of play. Serratore makes the point that the rule might be part of encouraging more skill when handling the puck, but let’s be honest, as he was: That is not that much a part of this equation. A defenseman, despite his skill, under pressure in a corner by two players is going to unload the biscuit about as hard and fast as he can no matter his skill level. Option 2 is put it in your skates and eat it, trying to get a whistle. Former Boston College defensemen Mike Brennan and Tim Filangieri were great at this. Coaches have been teaching kids that trying to make a play with the puck in small space, especially in your own end is a huge taboo.

Rules committee chair Forrest Karr gave a detailed explanation of the committees’ side, and it was interesting and forthcoming.

As told to Sullivan, about 30 percent of the men’s Division I coaches like this proposed rule change. Sixty-one percent of the league commissioners like it (they aren’t coaching, so take that number with a grain of salt) and 46 percent of officials like it. That so many officials like it is alarming. Why do they like it? No one likes something unless it benefits them; what benefit to their job does not allowing a penalty killing team to ice the puck have? This rule could do what Serratore said: make them hesitant to call penalties. Worse, it could make games dreadfully long, and in this age of rampant adult ADHD we want long, dull games for a television audience?

Karr was astute to point out that there is a delay of game penalty for players that shoot pucks out of play intentionally. Then there is the rule proposal that would not allow a team to change players if someone fired the puck out of play but not be penalized for delay.

Then he went on to say that players’ behavior would change if they realized how severe a situation penalty killing was under the new rules. On this one, he’s a little off.

Players take dumb penalties no matter the consequences. They do at alarming rates despite the new rules. I could not give you numbers without looking back at games, but there are at least three bad offensive-zone penalties taken a game, not to mention elsewhere on the ice. Lazy players will always take dumb penalties. Finesse guys will take a dumb one out of frustration, usually when they are getting the tar knocked out of them and can’t draw a penalty. There are enough dumb penalties to go around, and no rule change will prevent that.

Even at the elite levels, players take dumb penalties. Looking back at the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championship and the games between the U.S. and Canada, there were enough dumb penalties in those three games — all huge games on the biggest stage of junior hockey — to make you think the games didn’t mean anything. The U.S. almost blew the gold medal because one player committed a goalie interference penalty in the closing minutes, and it was his third of the tourney.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky once quoted Vince Lombardi to me when he said fatigue makes cowards of us all. Guys get tired, and when they do their feet stop and they take the path of least resistance to stop an opponent. It’s not because they are lazy; they are just gassed. Under the new rule, Appert is right: you could wind up with four players killing a penalty totally out of wind and taking penalty after penalty even if just to get a whistle. Does that improve the product?

That is what this is all about, improving the product. I can’t seem to find one amateur scout that seems to think this will do anything close to helping college hockey.

I used to coach professionally. I used to play. Now I broadcast and scout for a living. I can tell you there is nothing less entertaining then a game that is filled with penalties and whistles. There are too many icings now, and this rule would probably increase that number and slow these games down.

Fans want action, and when a shorthanded team ices a puck now a couple of things happen. The first is that fresh players come out and the pace picks up. The second is that the power play unit has to go back, regroup, break out, gain speed and attack or put pressure on the defensive team. That creates action and the unknown. Will a defenseman hit a forward for a home-run pass and a breakaway, the most exciting play in hockey? Will a forward get a pass from a defenseman and have an opposing player gap up and nail him with a good hit? Will there be a turnover in the neutral zone or offensive zone off the rush and see the penalty-killing team break out for a scoring chance?

What gets fans out of their seats? Big hits, goals scored and big saves. This rule will produce a lot of faceoffs. Faceoffs aren’t thrilling, especially with the hurry-up rule; it’s hard for the offensive center to even put a play on like a tap ahead, lost draw play, or anything. Most draws these days produce a play back to the point where the defenseman rips one netward that is blocked by the mass of defensive humanity in ultra protective gear clogging the shot lanes.

There are parts of the college hockey world that need fixing, but penalty killing isn’t it. Power plays aren’t what they used to be with the advance in protective gear. Forwards block more shots now and even the finesse guys who flamingoed in front of big shots in the past take them off the shin guards. If you want to make players possibly think of not taking penalties, make them sit the entire two minutes even if a power-play goal is scored. The team can go back to even strength but the player sits the full two minutes. They did that in the old days. When your personal ice time is affected, it’s amazing how much more attention to detail players will adhere to.

I respect USA Hockey and the NCAA rules committee. There are a ton of bright people in both of those two groups. I know USA Hockey has experimented with this and seen some results it liked in player development camps. However I’m with the coaches on this one 100 percent — the rule is a terrible one and their objections to it ought to rule the day. Coaches are the ones in the trenches day in and day out, teaching the game and developing the players. They are the ones watching film at 7 a.m., riding the buses, driving countless hours recruiting, and spending time at coaching symposiums and with other coaches learning the game. They live the game every day — not the product, not the business but the game. They know a lot of what is right and wrong with it and it seems they don’t get listened to at times. They shouldn’t have carte blanche on how the game is to be played, but when they say something isn’t going to be a good idea that should be given some weight.

A lot of them are getting frustrated by today’s game, and we might start losing some of the great teachers of the game. There are plenty of ex-coaches now scouting, and one of the big topics of discussions among ex-coaches is that the game was just getting too frustrating to be a part of behind the bench. We lose great teachers every year at all levels because there are so many people eager to fix what isn’t really broken.

I love college hockey and want to see it stay the great entertainment product it is for fans. I also want it to be seen as the only destination for elite American junior and prep school players as a development route to pro hockey or careers in things outside playing. I worry that too much tinkering with its rules might alienate some of those who don’t like the way the game is played at the NCAA level.

Let’s protect the players with the rules, not overwhelm them. Let them ice the puck when they are shorthanded. This is one rule change we just don’t need.


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