This Week in ECAC Hockey: Nov. 27, 2008

One of the underappreciated rules of good writing is, as one professor said, to “avoid clichés like the plague.” Common phrases — usually similes or metaphors — are such an easy out, and can instantaneously turn a quality piece of work into hackneyed garbage.

But some clichés go beyond a simple snippet or a sentence, and can lure an entire column (for example) into an attractive trap laced with laziness disguised as cleverness. The most frequent example is The List, which can come in many forms: the Top Ten list, the Power Rankings list, the Report Card, or the topical Bullet Point list. That last one is especially pertinent today, as I’ll be fighting tooth and nail against the urge to wreck this column with a “Things to be Thankful For” bit.

Don’t thank me yet; you may not like the alternative any better. After all, the nicotine gum that soothes my smoldering yearning for a good hot cliché is The Pun … and boy, do I love puns.

Mea Culpa

I … have been wrong.

I try not to make a habit of it, mind you, but I’m never afraid to step up and admit when I’ve made a mistake. So here’s a Ted Kennedy-sized portion of apologies so far this year. Hold the gravy.

• I was wrong about Dartmouth.

To be fair, who outside the 603 area code would’ve picked the Big Green to be Big Pimpin’ this year? Jody O’Neill is apparently the answer in net with a goals-against smack dab at 2.00 and a save percentage over .940. Adam Estoclet (four goals, eight assists) will be getting buzz for Rookie of the Year, until people realize he played last year too. The team’s top five scorers are underclassmen, and Dartmouth’s reigning scoring champion Evan Stephens is barely warming up (two goals, three assists).

The Green have already played Harvard and Cornell on the road (albeit in two losses), and play nine of their remaining 15 league games at home. It’s still early, but an awful lot of Dartmouth’s destiny lies in its own hands.

• I was partially wrong about Clarkson.

The Golden Knights are scrambling madly for the Tarnex, trying to put a shine on a season that has been all kinds of frustrating so far. The team that took the regular-season title in 2007-08 and went 15-3-1 at home (10-0-1 in ECAC play) is now 2-6-2 overall and 1-3-2 at home (1-3-0 at Cheel against the league).

The biggest headache for George Roll’s team has been in the infirmary. Shea Guthrie, Mark Borowiecki, Phil Paquet, Chris D’Alvise and Julien Cayer have missed 17 games between them due to an assortment of injuries, and the resulting tumult in the line charts has put the on-ice chemistry … well … on ice. Hopefully the experience currently being gained by the likes of sophomores Lauri Tuohimaa, Brandon DeFazio and Scott Freeman will serve the Knights well once the injury bug migrates elsewhere.

• I may have been wrong about Harvard.

I figured a new goalie and lost scoring would spell a slow start at best for the Crimson. Instead, the Ivy is a perfect 4-0-0 at home and 4-3-2 overall. Frosh ‘keeper Matt Hoyle has played every minute for the Cambridge crew, holding a 1.75 GAA and .938 save percentage, and players like senior Nick Coskren (who? a four goal-scorer, that’s who) are capitalizing for the reloaded Crimson.

That said, things are dim away from Bright, as Harvard is 0-3-2 on the road so far.

• Finally, and on a more sincere note, I either neglected to reach — or otherwise failed to reach — individuals like Cornell coach Mike Schafer, Princeton counterpart Guy Gadowsky, or league Director of Officiating Paul Stewart before running critical or controversial notes that concerned them in the past two weeks. I’m not going to go so far as to say it was lazy or sloppy journalism — much of the material was written close to deadline — but it was definitely incomplete, and I’m sorry for that.

Coaches for Consistency

Roger Grillo likes his team, likes his players, and likes having a single non-conference game against Connecticut to focus on this weekend.

What he doesn’t like is the perceived discrepancy between scorekeepers around the league.

Making note of the ostensibly significant workload being borne by goalie Dan Rosen, Grillo heated up a bit.

“He’s had some good games, but to just look at the shot charts is a farce,” he said. “The biggest farce in our league is how shot charts are produced. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves right now.”

To be sure, shot tallies are a deal with the statistical devil. They seem to indicate how many chances each team had on net, and by extension could imply dominance or inferiority of each side in the contest. But the shots simply can’t tell the story.

“We’ve been forcing people to shoot from outside,” stated Grillo, explaining how he has been happy to allow more clear, long-range shots instead of fewer but more dangerous chances from in close. (Watch the Boston Bruins if you get a chance, and you’ll see the strategy in action.)

Grillo also pointed out how some scorers count 100-foot dump-ins on net as shots, while others have a more subjective ruling on what constitutes a shot and what isn’t worthy of the designation.

The fact of the matter is that there ought to be a clean and clear definition for counts and what doesn’t. I had always believed that any puck — originating from an opposition stick — that would go in the net were it not for a goalie, counts as a shot. Am I wrong? I haven’t had the chance to find the NCAA designations, but I’ll check it out for you by next week and let you know.

Also, stay tuned for a possible feature story on rebound percentages, which is a side project I’m working on to improve on the current goals-against/save percentage statistics that define goaltender performance. I hope it pans out.

Talkin’ Turkey

… with Steve Hagwell, ECAC Hockey Commissioner

Puns? Me? Never.

The Commish and I conversed the other day about the State of Things, vis-a-vis the league administration. Hagwell & Co. are already making preparations for Springtime in Albany (a.k.a. The Bank of America ECAC Hockey Championship), but specific details are still far from finalized. The current phase seeks sponsorship funding, which has been difficult given the general state of the economy, according to Hagwell.

Elsewhere, ECAC Hockey is planning another year of Pink at the Rink to benefit breast cancer research and the American Cancer Society, and also a charitable event to support “Coaches Care,” a foundation raising money to aid the needy in the Gulf Coast region of the country. I’ll do my best to keep you all up to date on the latest regarding each benefit.

The Boss mentioned the web site as a big area of interest, as the statistics program has changed (an improvement, in my humble opinion) and new material and features are constantly being evaluated. Officiating is “the primary league focus,” but more on that later.

And what about this newfangled shootout proposal, already being used in the CCHA and in multiple women’s leagues?

“There was considerable discussion between the administration and the coaches … we looked at various formats to try to figure out if we wanted to implement it or not,” Hagwell said. “Coaches made their recommendations to [the athletic directors].” The coaches voted against the shootout as a group, and “at the end of the day, the administrators went with the coaches.”

Don’t count the gimmick out entirely though; the commissioner indicated that the idea could be up for debate again at any time.

… with Paul Stewart, Director of Officiating

Mr. Stewart is not a subtle man. (Yes, that’s really him, dropping ’em against fierce Bruins pugilist Terry O’Reilly during the 1979-80 season.)

I had barely uttered the word “protocol” — as in, protocol minor, an oft-heard call in the league this year — before Stewart was at full volume in my right ear.

The issue at hand regards the popular habit of teams emptying their benches following a period to line up and congratulate the players/goalie on the ice before proceeding to the locker rooms for intermission. Stewart has declared this situation to be Practice Non Grata in the ECAC, and orders his referees to call protocol penalties on offending teams. He and his officials have caught a lot of flak for the policy, but the veteran collegiate (former Penn Quaker) and professional player and ref won’t hear of it.

“I’m fed up with all this hubbub,” he said of the complaints. There were in recent years “several games with incidents between periods, where players crisscrossed” and made contact with each other, deliberately or not, leading to unnecessary fights and injuries … not to mention game delays.

“Play continuing after the horn … [stuff] that may have led to fighting,” he said. “There is a mandate that in our league, if players leave the bench [unreasonably], they are subject to a penalty.”

I could not find the rule specifically stated anywhere in the NCAA rule books, though different interpretations are possible. One rule states that it is not a penalty for players to leave the bench to congratulate a goal-scorer, though such behavior is discouraged and may be penalized if it becomes excessive; another states that players not skating a period’s opening shift must proceed directly to the bench after an intermission.

“I’m not going to have highly motivated, highly excited players turning this into a ritual,” he explained. “The end of the game is one thing,” but it is out of place during intermissions, he decreed.

“We’re doing it in the best interests of the 12 teams … the reason we’re doing this is because we’re cutting-edge in the ECAC,” he said. “Our goal is to get 40 players back on the bus safe and healthy … to have two coaches who know they had a fair chance to win … and fans and programs who saw a great hockey game.”

It remains to be seen how the protocol mandate will play out in non-conference or NCAA competition, where opposing coaches may have a legitimate beef with a rule that is not explicitly recognized in the national guidelines. Regardless, the pad-taps had best be kept ’til the postgame or the locker room as long as Stewart’s in charge.

There are very, very few — if any — affiliated with ECAC Hockey who have seen as many games as Paul Stewart, and I for one have great respect and no small amount of sympathy for his position and that of the on-ice officials (two refs, two linesmen … and not “assistant referees,” Stewart pointed out). It’s a tough job to see the game in the same colors as your uniform — black and white — when the sport is anything but. There will always be cases of human error, and when intense and physical emotion is added to the brew, the role endures exponentially more pressure.

So now that there are two refs on the ice at a time, how important is it that they are on the same page?

“We don’t hire single bananas,” Stewart said. “We hire bananas who want to be part of the bunch.

“We don’t care about your ego. We don’t care about who you are, or where you come from … we only care about making the right call.”

I asked his opinion on a scenario I saw play out in another league’s game. One ref made a call. A coach hit the ceiling, and demanded an explanation. The other referee, who was next to the bench, said “don’t ask me, I didn’t make that call.”

“I’d fire that ref in an second,” Stewart swore. “I’d go down to the locker room, hand him his money, and tell him to get in his car and go home.”

And what of all the fans at the games and on the message boards, skewering officials for perceived errors-of-judgment?

“Any [people] interested in expressing an opinion on … USA hockey, or college hockey, or the game of hockey … are cordially invited to send me their resumes [demonstrating] some knowledge of the game … and to bring their skates” to one of my officials’ camps, Stewart challenged.

“I’ll give you a sweater and a whistle, and I’ll put you out in a game. We’ll see what you’ve got.”