Tinkering With The Rules

The first full season of the Referee-Assistant Referee concept of officiating college hockey nationally is one game shy of completion.

As most frequently explained, the Assistant Refs (ARs) are to call penalties the Referee doesn’t see. It’s an explanation that may not be completely accurate, but short of getting a court order for the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee to open its books, it is the definition that has been used as the starting point for discussions with supervisors of officials this tournament weekend.

The reviews of 1-Ref-and-2-ARs have, by and large, been quite positive from coaches and officials. Fans, of course, will never be happy with referees. One of the few outspoken critics of the system is a well-intentioned, albeit picky, play-by-play announcer from a Midwestern sports channel.

His gripe has been, “How can you expect an AR to determine what a Ref doesn’t see?”

The basics of this system have been in use in the CCHA for three seasons, where Supervisor of Officials Dave Fisher says the ARs have been instructed to call infractions that occur behind the Ref. Now, thats a reasonable instruction — easily defined and easily followed. After a two-year trial in that conference, watched by zebras and zebra trainers from East to West, the principle was adopted nationally.

Through three seasons, says Fisher, “There have been no complaints, none, about calls made behind the play.”

The CCHA experiment started on a small scale and grew as it proved successful. In the first year, as the puck progressed out of an end zone, the AR was allowed to call penalties in that zone up to the blueline, if the infraction was behind the referee. By midseason, the AR’s jurisdiction was expanded to the center line. In year two, the system was working so well that jurisdiction expanded to the far blue.

The CCHA’s intent, whether stated publicly or not, was for officials to call stick infractions and actions that might result in injury. Again, a reasonable set of instructions.

But now that the system has been adopted by the NCAA and is in use in all four conferences, the predictable has occurred. College hockey’s regional biases and interpretations have reared their confusing, confounding and oftimes ugly heads.

Whats worthy of two minutes in the ECAC and Hockey East isn’t worth the wax some players put on their sticks in the CCHA.

The regional differences became glaringly evident at the West Regional games in Grand Rapids, Mich. More than once, Eastern ARs fluttered the peas in their whistles and Westerners bellowed, “Now what?”

NCAA Supervisor of Officials Charlie Holden agrees. “It shocked some people.”

ECAC referees, to their credit, know the NCAA rule book to the nth degree. They exercise literal interpretations of the rules. If they spot a penalty according to the letter of the law, they blow play dead. It doesn’t matter if the referee has seen the penalty or not. In effect, there are three full-time referees.

“In certain parts of the country,” Holden says, the refs have told their assistants “if I didn’t see it, (you) call it.” In a sense, that’s refreshing — refs without vanity, not concerned about being shown up by some guy not wearing an arm band. “Everyone involved in the game,” says Holden, “agrees we need more than one set of eyes. But, they have to remember it’s what the (NCAA) Rules Committee wants, not what each conference wants.”

To that end, Holden met with supervisors of officials from each of the conferences in Milwaukee Friday. They discussed implementation of the system, and whether ARs should call penalties.

“Is that what the Rules Committee wants? The answer is ‘Yes’.”

The basic tenets of the system seem to be accepted by most, if not all, coaches. Hockey East supervisor of officials Brendan Sheehy says that after just one season, coaches in that conference liked it. “They want to make sure all penalties are called.”

By midseason, Hockey East ARs called 91 penalties. In stark contrast, there were 47 such calls in the CCHA for the entire season. The WCHA total for the season was two dozen. Holden has asked each of the supervisors for final totals by the middle of April.

Holden’s concern is not the principle of the system but the mechanics. “It took us six years to get them (referees and their supervisors) to call checking from behind.”

This weekend, he’s asking about the holding-the-stick penalty. Do members of the rules committee, league supervisors and coaches want such an infraction behind the referee and behind the play to be called by an assistant refereee?

The system seems here to stay. What pleases the picky Midwestern TV voice is knowing the policymakers are intent on refining it so that it’s mechanically and logically sound, and that they aren’t forcing the ARs to become omniscient beings with some form of high-definition vision.