Gooning It Up

For the record, let me say this: I am a hockey purist.

Now, the word “purist” means a lot of things. When a baseball fan says it, he means that he hates the DH and Astroturf. A football purist hates the forward pass, or something like that. There aren’t any basketball purists (apologies to Michael Jordan).

In hockey, though, we mean something different. A hockey purist likes to see guys get hit. This does not mean that we don’t like to see smooth skating and good wrist shots; but there’s an art to a solid check that is every bit as legitimate as a wraparound goal.

Which brings us to the first topic of discussion today: the goon. This majestic creature is an endangered species in North American hockey, his native habitat overrun by faster-moving, more graceful European skaters. But he can still be found in one place, at least: the penalty box. This is the goon’s favorite nesting area, and he visits it often.

The penalty in hockey serves two purposes, which are really at odds with one another. First, the penalty is just that: it punishes conduct outside the rules. But, strangely enough, it also legitimizes such conduct by writing it into the flow of the game. For example, suppose you’re a goon (work with me here, people). The opposing team’s top sniper has gotten by you, and is now one-on-one with your goalie. What do you do?

Easy. You haul him down. You get to go sit in the box for two minutes, and he gets to think about his glory denied. That’s a smart penalty, one taken for the good of the team. Nobody gets hurt, and the score doesn’t change, at least if your penalty-kill is any good. At any rate, that’s your job, especially when you’re a goon.

Let me clear something up, before the outraged comments start pouring in. When I say “goon,” I mean it in the affectionate way that best friends use when they insult one another to say hello. I’m going to call some guys goons in a few minutes, and that’s not a bad thing. Hockey needs goons. Coaches call these guys “physical players” or “enforcers,” which mean the same thing. But “goon” is a lot more fun to say over and over — try it. Besides, the title of this article reads a lot better than “Physical Playing It Up” would have.

One of the oft-held myths about the goon is that he has limited hockey skills — that he’s just out there to cross-check people and start fights. This is not true. To prove my point, let’s examine the CCHA scoring figures from last year. The following table lists the leading (overall) scorers among players averaging at least two penalty minutes per game:

Player, team               G     A   Pts    PIM
Jason Botterill, Mich 32 25 57 143
Brett Punchard, BGSU 20 32 52 75
Warren Luhning, Mich 20 32 52 123
Keith Aldridge, LSSU 14 36 50 88
Kelly Perrault, BGSU 14 32 46 101
Kyle Millar, WMU 19 20 39 84
Mike Peron, UIC 15 14 29 73
Tony Tuzzolino, MSU 12 17 29 120
Dan Boyle, Miami 7 20 27 70
Quinn Fair, BGSU 6 21 27 76

Pretty nice numbers, especially when you consider that Botterill, Luhning and Tuzzolino were the three most-penalized players in the CCHA last season. By the way, did you notice that NCAA champion Michigan has two of the top three on our list? Now let’s look at the “gentlemanly” players, those averaging less than one-half penalty minute per game:

Player, team             G    A   Pts   PIM
Kevin Hilton, Mich 10 51 61 8
Mike Hall, BGSU 23 22 45 16
Cody Bowtell, UAF 21 23 44 8
Chris Brooks, WMU 17 26 43 12
Mike York, MSU 12 27 39 20
Pat Williams, UAF 8 28 36 18
Gerald Tallaire, LSSU 9 21 30 18
Pierre Dufour, OSU 8 22 30 10
Jeff Trembecky, UAF 14 13 27 12
Dallas Ferguson, UAF 5 22 27 14

If we scan these two tables, we notice that the goon numbers are awfully similar to those of the gentlemen. In fact, adding up the scoring, the goons total 159-249–408, vs. 127-255–382 for the nice guys. Pretty close, indeed.
Now, when you’re a coach, you’d like to have a balance of strength and speed on your squad. Some teams lean one way and some the other, but you need a little of both if you’re going to succeed. So the question presents itself: can we find a relationship between team penalties and winning? Let us look…

Team	      CCHA Record   PIM (rk)   Opp (rk)  Diff
Lake Superior 22- 6-2 632 (4) 700 (3) -68
Michigan 22- 6-2 613 (5) 648 (6) -35
Michigan State 22- 7-1 579 (9) 660 (4) -89
Western Michigan 21- 6-3 733 (1) 727 (1) 6
Bowling Green 18-11-1 570 (10) 581 (9) -11
Ferris State 10-17-3 606 (8) 605 (7) 1
Miami (Ohio) 9-17-4 630 (6) 524 (10) 106
Ohio State 8-17-5 609 (7) 594 (8) 15
Alaska-Fairbanks 8-22-0 705 (2) 710 (2) -5
Notre Dame 6-20-4 689 (3) 659 (5) 30
Illinois-Chicago 6-23-1 538 (11) 494 (11) 44

Some things are apparent from looking at this table. For instance, there is no clear relationship between a team’s success and the number of penalty minutes it takes (the “PMin” column). Western Michigan, the most-penalized team in the CCHA, was an NCAA tournament team, while the second-most penalized squad was lowly Alaska-Fairbanks.

On the other hand, Michigan State took very few penalties en route to a third-place finish (and a bid to the national tournament), while the now-defunct UIC squad came in last — both in penalty minutes and in the CCHA. Apparently, then, taking a lot of whistles was no barrier to success last year in the CCHA, and taking only a few was no help.

Nor is the opponents’ overall ranking any good. As before, we find teams high and low without any apparent pattern. However, examining the difference between the two penalty totals, we notice that, generally speaking, teams who took fewer penalties than their opponents ended up at the top of the league.

Even this relationship is not strong, though. In fact, the most striking thing in the data above is how closely a team’s total penalty minutes correlate with its opponents’ totals. For instance, Western Michigan not only was first in minutes against, but also first in opponents’ minutes. Similarly, UAF was second in both the “for” and “against” columns.

In fact, going down the list, we find that for nine of the 11 CCHA teams, penalties for and against correspond very nicely (the exceptions being Michigan State and Miami). This begs the question: why?

The knee-jerk response is to say something like this. “Well, obviously, when you come to play a physical team like Western Michigan, you’re lured into playing their game, and therefore Western’s opponents end up with lots of penalty minutes, just like Western themselves do.” And vice versa for low-penalty teams. The only problem with this line of reasoning is that it doesn’t make much sense. For example, when “physical” WMU plays “gentlemanly” UIC, what happens? Well, if you look at Western Michigan’s line up above, you’d say they must have played rough. If you look at UIC’s, they played nice.

So here’s what I think. The numbers above don’t tell us as much about the teams as they do about the officiating. Please allow me to elaborate: how many times have you seen a guy get high-sticked (or cross-checked, or tripped, or slashed) and retaliate, so that both guys end up in the box? Or, maybe one guy starts a fight. There’s a little scrum, and multiple players get to sit. Usually a nice even number, so nobody gets a power-play out of it.

This happens a lot, and when it does the home fans start screaming at the refs and chanting things about glasses and so forth. And rightly so, because sometimes an official just puts two guys in the box because he doesn’t know who started it. And that’s the whole problem; there’s only three guys to watch for this kind of stuff, and there’s six thousand up in the stands with loud voices and eagle vision.

What to do? I recommend sweeping changes in the NCAA officiating structure. We can begin by putting seventeen officials on the ice. This will not only improve the quality (and number) of calls, but will also dramatically increase fans’ enjoyment of refs getting hit with the puck or run into by the players. While this is just a start, I think it’s a good one.

Now if we could just get Jordan to lace up the skates …