Gentlemen, Start Your Special Teams
I went to a hockey game and some five-on-five broke out.
When the Ohio State — St. Cloud Ice Breaker game reached the three-minute mark, one press box wag observed that perhaps a record for this season had just been set. There had yet to be a penalty call.
Some haven’t been so amused. Take, for example, Niagara coach Dave Burkholder after his Purple Eagles fell to Massachusetts-Lowell in a game that included 50 penalty minutes.
“There has never been a game in the history of hockey at any level that we all just had to witness,” said Burkholder.
Well, maybe, maybe not.
Across the country, collegiate referees began to enforce the NCAA mandate for tighter calls, particularly interference away from the puck, in an effort to promote more skill in the game. The contest that didn’t see an explosion in penalties was the rare exception. Based on the opening to this season, five-on-five play should be added to the endangered species list.
A random sampling of box scores shows: 58 penalty minutes (Denver – Minnesota), 59 penalty minutes (Clarkson – Massachusetts), 73 minutes (North Dakota – Maine) and 64 minutes (Minnesota Duluth – Notre Dame).
You get the picture. Across the board, teams wore a path to the penalty box and five-on-threes became almost as “normal” as five-on-five.
Burkholder wasn’t the only to complain.
Ohio State coach John Markell said, “You look at all the box scores and it’s crazy. Teams are going 1-for-11 and 0-for-12 [on the power play]. You just didn’t know the magnitude of [the new changes]. When I watched the [St. Lawrence – St. Cloud] game, two obstructions put St. Cloud down twice five-on-three. That’s hard to take.
“It’s too large of a transition from the game last year to right now. If they stay consistent with it, I can understand. I just think it’s unfortunate that calls like that are going to determine games.”
For the most part, though, coaches are standing behind the changes even though the adjustment process has resulted in one ugly game after another as the flow has become that of cold molasses.
“I think it’s good for the game,” said New Hampshire coach Richard Umile. “They’re not creating penalties; they’re calling penalties that are points of emphasis.
“When you have an advantage, you need to maintain it. [They’re] not going to be able to come up and give him a tug and pull the guy. If you’ve created a two-on-one, you should get it and I’m all for that.
“Hopefully, they’ll continue to [make the calls]. Everybody will learn what’s going on with these penalties. If they keep calling them, people will stop. If you [stop] calling them after a couple of weeks, we’ll go right back to [the clutching and grabbing] so hopefully they’ll stay with it and everybody will adjust.”
A cynic might say that it’s easy for Umile to give a thumbs up to the changes since last weekend his team went 6-for-21 on the power play while its opponents went 1-for-15. But St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh seconded Umile’s endorsement even though his Saints gave up two of UNH’s man-advantage goals while going 0-for-17 themselves.
“We’ve got to make it a better game,” said Marsh. “I told our kids beforehand that there’s a strong point of emphasis to call the book. We’ve got to get better at how we cover people, especially off the puck. We took some nonskating-type penalties. Those can be avoided by better positioning and better anticipation defensively.
“I don’t know if you want to be coaching special teams all the time and it does disrupt the flow. That’s not the part I like. [But] it’s a process. Right now we just have to bear with it.
“The key is that I like the objective; I like the initiative that we must take. It’s got to be coaches, players and officials. We’ve got to buy into the spirit. We all have the responsibility to make it a better, and really a safer, game.
“I watch the NCAA tape that they sent out at the beginning of every year for the points of emphasis and you should see some of the hits. I mean, I’m just thankful I don’t have a boy playing the game. I’ll tell you that. But when you’re coaching, you do. You’ve got 20 of them out there and you feel for them and you feel for the other kids on the other team.
“In the long run it’s what we have to do. It will make it a better game, accentuating the speed and skill. These kids are bigger, stronger, faster. The equipment is more protective. All of these things have added to the notion of there’s not a lot of fear out there. They’re covered in armor.
“We’ve talked about this for years and years and years. It’s really time to see if we can’t call the book a little bit more and see if we can’t give the game a little more of a chance to develop the way it should.”
There’s no doubt that the changes have opened up play, as was desired.
“It’s a lot easier to play on the power play with all these new rule enforcements,” said UNH’s Brett Hemingway, who scored three man-advantage goals last weekend. “They can’t clutch and grab and do all the things they used to. It definitely gives us a lot more room to show our skills.”
At the same time, coaches have had to juggle lines to an almost absurd degree since having two power-play and penalty-kill units has proven insufficient.
“With the penalty situations, the lines were kind of crazy,” said Umile. “We were making [the combinations] up, trying to use everybody.”
Fans, however, have been frustrated with the product as have been many in the media. Referee Dan Murphy actually had to be escorted to his vehicle following the Niagara — Lowell contest. Officials have never been fan favorites, but their popularity has fallen to a new low as they are calling the games the way they’ve been instructed to.
“Let ’em play!” has been the rallying cry of many who are frustrated at the ludicrous lack of flow to the games.
To which Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald says, “My favorite Robert F. Kennedy line is, ‘Progress is a nice word, but change is its motivator and change has its enemies.’ We’re trying to make progress in that we’d like to create more offense and free up some skilled players, but change is strictly interpreting obstruction away from the puck and that change has its enemies.
“It’s tough to all of a sudden take the way you played the game for years and years and years — you develop instincts and habits — and just try to modify that behavior overnight. It just doesn’t happen. I think it’s going to take a half dozen games maybe to get a good feel for it.”
In the same way that the obstruction interference calls were the point of emphasis for referees last weekend, avoiding those calls are a point of emphasis for coaches this week.
“We’re clipping tape from even last year’s games to show our interpretation of what are going to be penalties this year,” says MacDonald. “We’re teaching our kids visually that, ‘Hey, that’s a penalty now. We can’t do that now.’ And then we try to reinforce it in the course of a practice. It’s something that we as coaches and players will have to adapt to.”
Adds Providence coach Paul Pooley, “Defensive positioning is imperative. If you’re out of position and you have to hold a guy or impede him, you’re going to get called. So we’ve been talking a lot about positioning and protecting the middle of the ice. We did D-zone practice today with no sticks just so you couldn’t grab a guy.”
Some have wondered if the changes will help certain teams more than others. Providence, for example, has a reputation as a hard-nosed defensive team out of the mold of the mid-nineties Lake Superior State teams.
“I don’t think people understand how fast we are on the wings,” Pooley says. “So I think it’s going to be an advantage for us. We [emphasize] for our guys to move without the puck, which is something that is going to be a positive because if you get impeded when you’re moving to an open area they’re going to get a penalty. So I think it’s actually going to help us as opposed to hurt us in the long run.”
MacDonald adds, “Good players are good players under any circumstances in any controlled environment. I think maybe we’ll have some players that maybe couldn’t fight through the traffic before, but now have a little bit more time and space. Maybe they’ll take another step up.”
But what are fans to do as their game appears to be turned into a caricature?
The answer is to wait. Teams will adjust. They’ll have to adjust as long as the officials keep blowing the whistle.
“It’s like when you start disciplining a classroom,” says St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl. “At first it’s chaos, but eventually things start to come around.”
Which is not to say that it’ll be easy, either for the teams or the fans.
Let’s face it, we are an instant gratification society. And this season’s games have been as instantly gratifying as a trip to the dentist. Some might even say a Marathon Man trip to the dentist.
It has been ugly. Butt ugly.
But the officials should keep making the calls and fans should try to stay patient. In the long run, a faster, more skilled game will result even if it has been temporarily slowed to a crawl.
Teams that don’t have the intellectual or athletic capacity to adjust will lose to teams that do adjust. They’ll lose because they’re either wearing a path to the penalty box or getting beat defensively because they can’t stop an opponent without interference.
And they will deserve to lose.
So be patient.
The ugly duckling of October will eventually become the beautiful swan.
Four Maine Legends Honored
From Andrew Knapp’s Maine – North Dakota game story:
Prior to the contest, a ceremony at center ice commemorated long-time head coach Shawn Walsh’s contribution to the Black Bear hockey program. A green shamrock, which is also sewn to the players’ sweaters this season, joined the numbers of three other retired jerseys — Paul Kariya, Jim Montgomery and Scott Pellerin — on a banner hanging from the rafters at Alfond Arena. A four-time coach of the year, Walsh won 399 games with Maine and coached its two national championship teams.
The Best Surprise
Last season Northeastern didn’t win a game until December. But what a difference a year has made as the Huskies knocked off the top-ranked Michigan Wolverines, 4-2. Although a loss to Miami left them with a split, the weekend was an encouraging start to the season.
“I think that the thing we did learn is that we can play with people,” said NU coach Bruce Crowder. “We can compete. Coming out of six periods against two teams ranked in the top 15, I think we held our own pretty good to the point of beating the nationally top-ranked team to playing Miami of Ohio pretty tough. I think we’re going to be a team that people are going to have look out for.
“We’ve got some things we’ve got to do. We’ve got to get a little stronger defensively at times, and we’ve got to find ways for guys that we’re counting on as skill players to produce some offense. There’s some coaching things we’ve got to do, too. We’ve got to get more out of our power play, and that’s where the coaching comes in, trying to utilize people in the right situations.”
Not The Way Jack Diagrammed It
The biggest disappointment of last weekend was Boston University’s double-dip to Miami and Michigan. Not only did the Terriers start the season 0-2, they did so in lopsided fashion, losing the games, 5-1 and 7-2, respectively. Strength on the blue line, the operative phrase going into the season, was nowhere to be found.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted at how poorly our defense played this weekend,” said BU coach Jack Parker. “I thought it would be the best part of our game, and we were absolutely inept in every phase: killing penalties, on the point on the power play.
“We put freshman Chris Bourque on the point on the power play, and he had more poise than all of the upperclassmen combined. The six of them had an awful weekend. You can’t win hockey games when six of what I thought would be our most important guys are out to lunch.”
And if those words didn’t catch the attention of the blueliners, Parker added a few more specific to the loss to top-ranked Michigan.
“They certainly lived up to expectations,” Parker said. “It was four-nothing before we put our skates on, but I think that the Belmont Bantams could’ve gotten a few against us early on.”
Expect a night-and-day performance against Vermont on Saturday.
And Another Downer
Maine didn’t take it on the chin quite as badly as Boston University did, at least in terms of goal differential, but getting swept on your home ice is never good news.
“If we play a top team like North Dakota, we’re going to need to work harder than that from start to finish,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “A couple guys in that locker room left it all out on the ice — Brent Shepheard, Ben Murphy, John Ronan, Josh Soares, Rob Bellamy, Bret Tyler. I was very impressed with those guys.
“But I think some of our veterans forgot what a privilege it was to play here in front of the best fans in the country and to have the tradition that we have here. I think some of the guys forget that sometimes, and I don’t like that.”
Quotes of Note
Umile was praising Brett Hemingway’s scoring prowess, making comparisons to his brother Colin, when one press wag asked about Brett’s ability to duplicate Colin’s famous “stick-between-the-legs” goal. Said Umile:
“If he tries it, he better score.”
UNH forward Josh Ciocco, upon seeing reporters converge on him after he scored his first collegiate goal in 19 games:
“The media! I heard these people existed.”
NU coach Bruce Crowder on his team defeating top-ranked Michigan:
“Against some teams — I don’t want to say against weaker teams — but against some teams you just kind of play to their level. You go out there playing against the number one ranked team, and we stepped up to their level and surpassed them. We came out on top.”
St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh on an opening season gauntlet that began with UNH and Ohio State:
“We go to Michigan State and Michigan next weekend and Maine the following weekend. We’re not going to see our home, Appleton Arena, for a while…. I’ve got the reporter at home saying that we’re going to have a losing season because we decided to play these games. I guess we’ll play them anyway.”
Marsh on being UNH’s travel partner at Michigan State and Michigan:
“Hopefully we’ll see them. I don’t know what their travel arrangements are, but I don’t even know what ours are.”
Marsh on his team’s expectations:
“We’re picked for eighth place in our league and I think the guys should find that a little bit insulting and do something about it. I know I do.”
One Man’s Ballot
If you check out USCHO’s Division III and Women’s sections, you’ll see that their All-USCHO teams have been announced. Here is this writer’s ballot:
D-III All-USCHO Team:
F: Ryan Hendrickson (Wesleyan) F: Ryan Hendrickson (Wesleyan) F: Ryan Hendrickson (Wesleyan) D: Ryan Hendrickson (Wesleyan) D: Ryan Hendrickson (Wesleyan) G: Ryan Hendrickson (Wesleyan)
And my D-III All-Rookie Team:
F: Kevin Hendrickson (Wesleyan) F: Kevin Hendrickson (Wesleyan) F: Kevin Hendrickson (Wesleyan) D: Kevin Hendrickson (Wesleyan) D: Kevin Hendrickson (Wesleyan) G: Kevin Hendrickson (Wesleyan)
On the Women’s side, my All-Rookie Team looks like this:
F: Cherie Hendrickson (Providence) F: Cherie Hendrickson (Providence) F: Cherie Hendrickson (Providence) D: Cherie Hendrickson (Providence) D: Cherie Hendrickson (Providence) G: Cherie Hendrickson (Providence)
Last year, Scott Kaplan and Chris Sayles were the two Trivia Hall of Fame winners, so honored because they were first to correctly answer four times. Those two are back in the mix again this year. Can they repeat? Can you join them?
We kick off the trivia with the following: last weekend a Hockey East player went against an opponent with the exact same name — first and last, with the same spelling — but a different position. Email my trivia account with the name and the two teams. The winner will supply a cheer for his or her favorite team in next week’s column.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
Thanks to Scott Weighart, Andrew Knapp and Vince McConeghy.