A North Andover Twist

While watching a Boston University-Merrimack game earlier this year, my friend pointed out an interesting little wrinkle in the Warriors’ game plan: practically any time the puck was in ‘Mack’s zone, one of the Warriors would skulk the neutral zone, looking for a breakout pass.

I was fascinated, but didn’t look into it too much after the fact. I figured it was an experiment by Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy to find his spunky but often-out-gunned squad an edge.

Much to my surprise, a full two months later, Dennehy is still running the same wacky play.

“To be honest about it, I don’t know that I’d want to talk about it too much because I think it’s still catching a couple teams by surprise,” he reluctantly stated. “What has amazed me is that more people don’t recognize it. There’s still an element of surprise,” he said, though he was quick to state that it’s not an original strategy.

“If you knew me, you’d know that this is one of the most difficult things I have to say, which is ‘no comment,’” he laughed.

The sixth-year head coach, in his fifth season in the Merrimack Valley, did indicate that the Warriors have used the “cherry-picker” tactic all year long, with varying levels of success.

“I’d be more than happy to sit down with you at the end of the season and talk about the nuances of it, how we run it,” Dennehy said, but was obviously tight-lipped beyond that.

The reasons for running the play remain a mystery, but a few possibilities came to mind: a) Dennehy feels that his team has better odds playing four-on-four defense rather than five-on-five, and evacuating a forward and an opponent to cover him give Merrimack that desired advantage; or b) a select group of the Warriors’ forwards are dynamic enough to break free from their coverage on a consistent basis when their teammates get the puck out of the zone.

Chances are that there are other, more intricate and subtle reasons for running the play, but one thing’s for certain: Dennehy isn’t afraid to take the game in new directions if the tweaks will benefit his budding program.

Two-Minute Monologue

Hockey, as an entity, has made a lot of changes in recent years. Attempts to speed up, clean up, and first and foremost increase scoring have been major priorities, especially at the NHL level.

The world’s top league is looking to erase over a decade of trap-happy hockey, where the prevailing philosophy of the sport was to suffocate an opponent into submission while scoring just enough opportunistic goals to eke out the win.

Some of the NHL’s initiatives to this end included: allowing two-line passes; permitting tagging up in offsides situations; dictating a renewed emphasis among the officials against holding, obstruction, hooking, and general interference; prohibiting line changes for teams guilty of icing the puck; shrinking goaltenders’ equipment; shrinking the goal crease; creating the trapezoid to limit the territory in which goalies can play the puck; making overtime a four-on-four affair; and instituting the shootout, thereby eliminating ties.

The league even experimented (and may still be doing so, to some extent) with warping the size and/or shape of the goal to create more net to shoot at.

While all of these tweaks and twists have stuck, more or less, there is one adjustment that I believe would have a tremendously positive impact on the way the game is played. The funny thing is, it’s not a new idea in fact, it was in the NHL rule book half a century ago. Perhaps it’s time to dust off some history and make it our future.

Back in the middle of the century, all penalties were served to their chronological conclusions: players who took two-minute minors served all 120 seconds, regardless of whether – or how often – the opposition scored on the power play. Nowadays, of course, only five-minute major penalties allow for multiple power-play goals for a single infraction.

What changed? Ironically, in 1956-57 the NHL decided that too many goals were being scored, and parity (and to some extent the very relevance of the sport) was under fire.

The Montreal Canadiens were the culprits, dressing lethal combinations of Hall of Fame talent the likes of which had never before graced a sheet of ice. Mythical players like Maurice and Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, and Emile Bouchard were so prolific, so immutably and inherently dominant that the league felt it had little choice but to dampen the breakneck scoring pace of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge goal machine … by redesigning the game at large. (We should also be careful not to disregard the contemporary issue of simmering – and frequently blatant – prejudice against French Canadians, including the province of Quebec, its queen metropolis of Montreal, and of course the culture’s second religion: its beloved Canadiens.)

The NHL got its way, and while it did little to staunch the flow of Stanley Cup titles into Montreal, it did change the game in a big way.

Many among USCHO.com’s audience will astutely point out that the college game in many ways side-stepped the defensive quagmire into which the NHL tumbled in the mid-90′s through the lockout year of 2004-05. The talent is more diluted and rough around the edges, fighting has never been an issue, and rules like no-touch icing (where the defense doesn’t have to contact the puck to draw the whistle) and the two-line pass (which has been legal for a long time in NCAA hockey) keep the pace swift and exciting. That’s all true, and I for one don’t feel that boosting the scoring is an issue for our level of the sport.

But as a general rule of the game, one shared by many if not all levels of play, the full-minor rule could be a big step forward. The obvious result is that scoring will go up as power plays get second or even third goals in a single two-minute advantage. But the secondary effects may be the most appealing: after an early goal glut, it stands to reason that penalties themselves would diminish as coaches and players emphasize staying on even footing.

The current system of law and order puts the onus on the officials to keep a game clean, safe and fair. Rules are enhanced, re-emphasized, and re-defined in the hopes of putting all referees on the same page. In today’s Great Quest for Consistency, focus is on the strict definition of infractions instead of on the penalties’ ramifications.

I believe that we need to shift our focus to address the punishment more than the crime: players know what’s clean and what’s not; they know where the general line is. If the risk (goals against) is weighted a bit more heavily than the reward gained of a questionable action, the frequency of such actions will fall. It’s human nature, and it’s been minimized for too long.

Bring the sport full-circle: add the weight, and watch the game take off.

Crowd Control

Welcome, one and all, to USCHO.com’s newest blog. I hope to use this resource to address noteworthy material that falls outside the scope of my weekly ECAC Hockey column (though many of my readers would argue that over the years, precious little has qualified as falling out of range of a carefully crafted tangent).

Turnstiles do the Talking

Thanks to USCHO reader Vic Berardelli for noting this little nugget of college hockey information: the games are popular.

No, really. Three WCHA teams (Wisconsin, North Dakota and Minnesota) have out-drawn the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes in per-game attendance, and the Badgers are edging the New York Islanders as well. Wisconsin leads the nation in attendance with 12,638 per game, while UND (11,605) and the U (9,889) also draw quite well. (Michigan and New Hampshire rank fourth and fifth, but fall more than 3,000 short of Minnesota.)

The Coyotes, on the other hand, pull up dead last in the National Hockey League at 9,825 … which is to be expected from a team with high lame-duck potential. The Islanders – despite top pick John Tavares – only pull 12,429 through the gates at Nassau County Coliseum, and rumors are flying that they, too, could soon be on the move.

But it’s not just the pitiful that the WCHA troika is trouncing: they each topped the American Hockey League’s best draw, the Hershey Bears (8,906). Berardelli’s perspicacity also led him to note that in Lowell, Mass., the local UMass-Lowell River Hawks have walloped the AHL’s Lowell Devils by better than a two-to-one margin … while playing in the same building. Up in Rochester, RIT drew more than 7,400 against Colgate at the Blue Cross Arena, home of the AHL’s Rochester Americans. It took the “Amerks” three home games combined to equal that total. (Thanks to editor Ed Trefzger for that note.) The UNH Wildcats sit over 1,500 more per game than the Manchester Monarchs down the road.

Expanding the scope, 22 of the NCAA’s 58 Division I programs are beating the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s 3,202 per-game average. Wisconsin and UND are ahead of the Quebec Remparts’ 11,175, a figure that is more than doubling all other QMJHL teams.

Nineteen D-I’s beat the Ontario Hockey League’s average of 3,794, and the NCAA’s Top Three better the OHL’s London Knights’ 9,020.

The Western Hockey League’s 4,082 fell short of 17 D-I programs, and the Calgary Hitmen’s 7,107 lead that league – still short of UW, UND and UM.

Breaking it Down

These numbers are all well and good, but what do they really mean? Well with regards to the NHL, it means things aren’t looking good at all for the Isles and ‘Yotes. This is the premier league in the world; none of its teams should be coming up short of anyone but each other.

The AHL comparison is, for all intents and purposes, just that – a comparison. The best of the NCAA feeds into the AHL, so it’s a bit tough to compare them in terms of skill, atmosphere, or business model.

Now this is where Paul Kelly and the NCAA gets antsy: the Major Juniors matchups. When kids are trying to decide their best course of action – Canadian Juniors or the NCAA – the number of fans in the stands may not be the be-all end-all, but it has a significant effect nonetheless.

As much as I’d love to tell you that Division I institutions are kicking their Canadian counterparts to the curb, the final figures aren’t quite that optimistic. I put a good spin on things in the opening half, but here is the other side of the coin:

The WHL and OHL average, as leagues, higher turnouts than NCAA D-I’s as a group: 3,319.

The emptiest arena in the Canadian Hockey League – the umbrella organization that oversees the OHL, QMJHL and WHL – is at Acadie-Bathurst, which pulls 1,483 per game this year. That still puts 13 D-I’s – nearly a quarter of all Division I members – beneath it, including such recently successful and storied programs as Princeton and Colgate.

If you combine the Major Juniors and D-I’s onto the same chart, you’ll see that they split the Top 10. The colleges have 11 of the top 20, but again split 15-15 when expanded to 30.

There are far too many variables to consider when analyzing the Junior-College draws, and let’s face it – it’s not so important as to be worth all that trouble anyhow.

In my opinion, the NCAA should be happy at beating a couple NHL organizations (as depressing as that is, in many ways), and can currently feel content at holding its own against the hockey-mad Canadian market. When battling the Juniors for talent, there are more important issues at hand.

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