Rule Book Headed for Change, But by How Much?

The NCAA men’s and women’s ice hockey rules committee gets this chance only once every two years, so there’s a little more emphasis to get it right.

In the next month, leading up to and through the committee’s meeting June 8-11 in Indianapolis, the dialogue about potential rules changes will lead to debate and then decision, and there are a few notable items on the docket.

The topics vary from overtimes and shootouts to icing and delay of game, but a primary entry for committee chair Forrest Karr is player safety.

Karr, the athletic director at Alaska and a former goaltender for Notre Dame, first listed safety in his quartet of important S-words for the committee — speed, skill and scoring are the others — and pointed out that the number of penalties for contact to the head has increased in the last few seasons.

“We hope it’s not because more people are violating the rules, more people are hitting to the head,” Karr said. “We hope it’s because officials are more aware of it and making the calls more often.”

The committee’s action this offseason in the effort to reduce major injuries caused by contact to the head likely will come through a redefinition of the penalty that has been on the books since 2003, Karr said.

On one facet, it could be toughened to emphasize the option of assessing a major plus game misconduct or game disqualification. On another, the committee could reinforce that officials don’t need to attach another penalty — high-sticking, roughing or the like — to it.

“Those are just some things we want to clean up in the rule book and hopefully make the game safer,” Karr said, “kind of like the big emphasis and push that’s been on checking from behind over the last few years.”

An offshoot of the safety discussion comes in the form of an old, familiar push renewed again: the call for half shields instead of full face masks.

The short story: It’s not likely to get decided this offseason, Karr said, which means it probably won’t come up for a vote until the 2012 offseason because the NCAA rule book is on a two-year cycle.

Behind that is a debate that ties into the current emphasis on concussion prevention. Half shield proponents say players show more respect for others when they know they’re wearing less facial protection, and point out that they’re the norm in junior hockey and in the competing Canadian major junior system. Opponents cite the risks of taking off the lower-face protection.

The topic came up at the recent American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Florida, and Karr said he believes that nearly 100 percent of the coaching body is in favor of a move to half shields.

Even if the rules committee went along with it, any decision still would have to get through the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel.

Karr likely won’t be involved in that final discussion; his term on the committee ends Sept. 1.

“I really think at the end of the day, it’s just going to come down to what the science shows,” he said. “If we can protect the kids better, if we can reduce the number of concussions by having them wear half shields, then I would think that most of the people on the committee would be in favor of moving that forward and proposing that.”

Looking at Overtime

In addition to reducing injuries, the committee has pushed discussion on reducing ties.

Two years ago, it allowed for the introduction of a shootout for interested conferences. That was one element in a number of options listed on a survey sent to coaches, administrators and officials before the coaches’ convention.

Those options for games tied after regulation, in addition to the current format (five-on-five for five minutes): five-on-five for 10 minutes; four-on-four for five minutes; four-on-four for 10 minutes; five-on-five for five minutes, then four-on-four for five minutes; five-on-five for five minutes, then a shootout; and four-on-four for five minutes, then a shootout. The last is the method used by the NHL.

“My overall feeling was that coaches are not largely supportive of the shootout,” Karr said. “But if we were going to go to a shootout, they’d like to follow the NHL model of a four-on-four followed by a shootout. There seemed to be more interest in reducing the number of tie games. In other words, not finishing the game with a shootout, but maybe tweaking the overtime rules that we have in place so more games end in overtime.”

The CCHA is the only Division I men’s conference that used a shootout to decide games tied after regulation and five minutes of overtime. Commissioner Tom Anastos said the league is in a holding pattern to see what options are available going forward, a sign that the shootout may not be in the next rule book, other than perhaps to decide who advances in an in-season tournament.

Karr said his sense was that the college hockey body wanted one system to use, not the ability to leave it up to individual conferences.

“I think we need to go a direction where it’s more like, for college hockey we’re either going to have shootouts decide the games or we’re going to do something else to decide games, but have everybody on the same page, doing the same thing,” he said.

Many Topics on the Table

Other issues or questions that are up for discussion by the committee include:

  • The officiating system. Among Division I men’s leagues, the CCHA was the only one to come out against the current, two-referee, two-linesman system in a straw poll, Karr said. Currently, Division I uses a four-person system and Division III has a three-person format.
  • A trio of topics involving icing. One potential development is the inclusion of the so-called hybrid icing, which allows for a race for the puck but isn’t a full touch-up system like is used in the pro ranks. If the attacking player reaches an imaginary line between the faceoff dots before the defending player, icing is negated. That would presumably increase scoring chances and hit on another committee mandate, reducing whistles.

Another is removing a shorthanded team’s ability to ice the puck without punishment. “The question people always ask is, why is it that you commit some type of infraction and you are actually rewarded and allowed to do something that you aren’t allowed to do normally?” Karr said.

More than half of those surveyed were against a change there, Karr said. But the committee will hear from NHL Central Scouting director E.J. McGuire, who routinely relays what’s likely coming down from the top level in terms of rule changes.

“This would be one where if they’re looking at it and other people around the hockey world are looking at it, that we would look at it, too,” Karr said. “Obviously, that’s a dramatic change.”

The third potential change is the elimination of the obtainable pass exemption, under which icing is waved off when the linesman rules an attacking player missed catching a pass.

  • Whether all goals that go in off a skate should be counted, as opposed to only those that are deflected, not directed. That idea was floated in Florida by what Karr called “iconic” coaches.
  • Whether to penalize teams when a player sends the puck over the glass. “It seemed like there was a lot of support for … that there needs to be some type of repercussion,” Karr said. “Right now in college there’s nothing; in the NHL there’s a penalty. It looked like from the survey results that over half of the people would like to see something, but not a penalty. They’d like to make it so that they can’t change their players. If their defenseman’s really tired and they just rifle the puck out, they’re not going to get rewarded by getting to change.”
  • Whether to continue to allow hand passes only in the defensive zone, or to make the rule independent of the location.
  • Further punishing penalized teams by not allowing them to change players before the start of the penalty and to make them kill the entire length of minor and double-minor penalties. The latter proposal didn’t have much support, Karr said.
  • Requiring a team that has a delayed penalty in effect to clear the puck out of its defensive zone to get the whistle instead of merely gaining possession. That’s another topic that didn’t garner much in the way of support.
  • Eliminating a player’s ability to leave his or her feet or slide to block a shot. The action decreases the number of scoring chances, Karr said, but the block has also become an element of skill. “We don’t want to take away something that’s really turned into an art,” he said.
  • Keeping the faceoff in the attacking zone after the puck hits the crossbar and goes out of play. That proposal, Karr said, had a lot of support.