Icing Rule Gets Icy Reception

The fierce passion displayed this week by much of the college hockey world begs the question: offseason? What offseason?

The massive outcry against one of the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee’s proposed rule changes has reverberated loud and deep, both within the NCAA community and beyond. The issue at hand — a move to enforce icing at all times, even when shorthanded — has coaches and fans alike bristling, but there appear to be as many serious misconceptions in play as there are ardent opinions.

Coaches Cry Foul

Numerous sources — notably Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald — have reported that college hockey coaches were overwhelmingly, perhaps even unanimously, against this amendment to the rule books for some very salient reasons.

“Player safety is a concern,” Rensselaer coach and American Hockey Coaches Association president Seth Appert said. “You might get young men stuck out there for two minutes on a penalty-kill situation — especially if it’s a five-on-three — where you’re putting them in real vulnerable situations, where they’re very tired, they’re very physically fatigued, they’re vulnerable from shot blocking or taking hits, because they can’t ice the puck and get off the ice.”

The coaches fear that the committee didn’t anticipate another realistic tactical response to the rule, which would put fans in danger, too.

American Hockey Coaches Association president and Rensselaer coach Seth Appert is among those speaking out against the proposed change to call icing when a team is shorthanded (photo: Melissa Wade).

American Hockey Coaches Association president and Rensselaer coach Seth Appert is among those speaking out against the proposed change to call icing when a team is shorthanded (photo: Melissa Wade).

“The other thing we’re going to do is, we’re going to clear pucks into the stands, and that’s putting the fans at risk,” Appert bluntly explained. “Right now on the penalty kill, we work on icing the puck. Well, now, instead of doing that, we’re going to work on clearing the puck over the glass, because now we can get a change and get fresh bodies on the ice. You’re going to see a lot of pucks going into the benches, and a lot of pucks going into the stands.”

Air Force coach Frank Serratore said that the committee may have envisioned the rule ultimately leading to better puck-handling and team play by shorthanded teams, but he said, “That’s not going to happen a lot of the time. Hypothetically, they think that’s going to enhance skill. I say even more, you’re going to have fatigued players … who are going to shoot it into the stands … or ice it regardless.”

“My personal opinion is, it will create some more whistles and I’ve always been of the opinion that whistles aren’t good for our game,” added Wisconsin women’s and 2010 U.S. Olympic coach Mark Johnson.

“Certainly, what the committee looks at is how to create offense, and how to keep the game moving, but as a body we just don’t believe that it’s going to do that,” Appert began. “From a game-enhancement point of view is, I know what I’ll do with my players if this is passed: We won’t stop icing the puck; we’ll just ice the puck and take the whistle. So what you’re going to see is power plays become like the NBA in the last two minutes [of a basketball game], where it’s stop-and-go, stop-and-go, stop-and-go. If we’re tired on the penalty kill, I’m not going to encourage our players to make a dangerous play. I’m going to encourage them to ice the puck, and we’re not going to go chase it. We’ll just line up four across, take a knee, get 10 or 15 seconds of rest while the referees go retrieve the puck.”

“I don’t think they thought, tactically, of what this is going to lead to,” summed Serratore.

The bench bosses likewise believe that the rule was poorly studied, with scant real-life experience to support its implementation.

“This rule has never been implemented in any North American leagues … and it’s only been experimented with at a few youth USA Hockey select festivals, and so I don’t think it’s been thoroughly researched,” said Serratore.

The 18-year head coach touched on another potentially detrimental result.

"To be honest with you, I think the coaches feel as though they haven’t been shown a lot of respect. Why do they give us the survey? Why do they ask us our opinion if the committee’s just going to turn around and do what they want to do anyway?"

— Air Force coach Frank Serratore

“If power-play percentages go up exponentially — and they’re certainly not going to go down — I’m afraid that the referees are going to become reluctant to call penalties at certain junctures of the game,” he mused. “We could end up having fewer penalties in a game, not because the game is any cleaner, but because the referees are reluctant to call it because the power plays are having such a bigger impact.”

Most articles — through the coaches — cited NCAA surveys as the basis for the proposal’s unpopularity. This year’s edition of the annual poll was completed and tabulated before the coaches’ convention in Florida in late April.

“I was on the rules committee for the last four years, and I know a year ago it wasn’t a hot topic that we discussed in great length,” said Johnson. “A year later we make a change. If that’s what the [coaches’] survey indicates that the body wants, or the majority of the people within the body as far as the coaches, then the committee will listen to that … but I’m not sure that that’s quite accurate.”

Johnson’s comments reflect the final, more personal concern from the NCAA coaching body. The group alleges that the rules committee disregarded what was all but a mandate from the coaching community in opposition to the change, which may not only allow the establishment of an unpopular rule, but also set an undesirable precedent down the road.

“I’ll say this, I think as a body, we’re pretty angry about the icing rule,” Appert said. “We were extremely — almost unanimously — against this rule as a [D-I men’s] body.”

“We’re certainly disappointed, and a little concerned, that the rules committee would look to implement something without the body’s support” and without considering the change as an experimental rule, he said. “It’s something you can try in exhibition games, or something you can try like the hybrid icing rule,” which was tried in exhibition games as well as in the USHL junior league.

“It’s a two-year process in which we could be stuck with this rule, and that’s quite concerning.”

Serratore had similar thoughts.

“I’m not in favor of it,” he said. “I believe that … in the surveys presented before the [coaches’] convention, only 20 percent of the coaches were in favor of that rule. And then after the convention, it was even dramatically less than that. So obviously some people’s views changed after having discussions with their colleagues in Florida. When 80 percent of [this] group believes that an icing rule should be a specific way, I just don’t understand how that can be decided by a panel of … people from various levels of hockey, that they’re smarter than everyone else.”

“I’m hopeful that if the coaching body is still heavily [against] adopting this rule, I would like to think that there’s a way to prevent it from going through,” he stated. “To be honest with you, I think the coaches feel as though they haven’t been shown a lot of respect. Why do they give us the survey? Why do they ask us our opinion if the committee’s just going to turn around and do what they want to do anyway?”

Committee’s Karr Counters

Alaska athletic director Forrest Karr chairs the rules committee for the last time this year, as he did for the two years prior. His explanations about the rule and the process by which it is finalized make it clear that there are a lot of misperceptions and misinformation circulating within the hockey community at the moment.

For starters, this is not an “us-versus-them” battle between the coaches and the committee, he said.

“I want to be careful as to not come across as defending the rule change, because frankly, we just want to come to the right conclusion and do what’s best for college hockey,” he said in a 40-minute phone interview. “It’s not like we’re digging in our heels … and that the committee is going to fall on its sword for this proposal. That’s not the idea.”

That said, there are a few problems with the detractors’ arguments, according to Karr. In addressing claims that the coaches were staggeringly opposed to the adjustment, the AD says that’s just not true.

“To answer your question as carefully as I can, the answer is that that’s just not correct that it was unanimous. In fact … it’s just not unanimous at all. There have been people out there saying, ‘How could the committee come to this conclusion, when it was overwhelming or unanimous that the coaches were against it?’ We have Division I coaches on the committee, and they have input into this, so it’s not unanimous. In fact, it’s not really even close.”

When asked in a later e-mail correspondence, Karr provided the following figures: 61.6 percent of commissioners approved of the rule, as did 45.9 percent of officials/supervisors and 31.6 percent of men’s coaches.

As for the specific critiques laid out by the coaches, Karr’s explanations lead to suspicion that some of the coaches’ complaints were either flawed themselves, or otherwise addressable before the proposal becomes law.

Apart from the chairman’s own clarifications, it’s a fact that the rule book already allows officials to call a delay-of-game penalty on a team that intentionally shoots the puck into the stands. Furthermore, Karr pointed out that a separate rule proposed by the committee this year would prohibit a team from making substitutions if it shot the puck out of play, but was not penalized for delay of game.

Secondly, “it could change the behavior of the players on the ice,” said Karr. “They may be less likely to be hooking, holding, clutching, grabbing. These minor infractions that slow down and take away from the skill of the game … they may be less willing to commit those infractions if they know that their team’s penalty kill is not going to have the option of just icing the puck.”

Finally, while the rule would be a new one to advanced hockey at any level, it’s not coming out of the blue. Karr said that every coach on the committee (as well as plenty of others, to be sure) had seen the rule in effect in select USA Hockey tournaments (as referenced by Serratore). Karr said that among the feedback from the coaches who led the participating teams, one intriguing point was that while power-play scoring chances increased, so too did shorthanded scoring opportunities. The USA Hockey coaches witnessed players thinking a little more carefully about their options, instead of just whipping the puck up ice as is the current convention.

“Several coaches on the committee have used the rule at USA Hockey player development camps and vocalized support,” Karr added in an e-mail.

The rules committee doesn’t function in a vacuum, either, as Karr pointed out that the panel has open discourse with USA Hockey and NHL representatives, and “we are always aware of what the IIHF is doing as well.” In fact, the committee was told that the NHL would be using the rule at a trial camp in August and may begin using the rule after next season, according to the chairman.

As for the fatigue factor on the ice, Karr said, “I think the safety concern is a valid one. It’s not totally a settled issue.”

Those last six words say far more about the current situation than many have presumed: The proposals are just that. Proposals.

Alaska’s AD laid out how the rules process works. First, the NCAA sent out surveys to all league commissioners, coaches, officials and officiating supervisors for what the respondents felt required attention from the rules committee. Karr then gave multiple presentations at the coaches’ meetings in Naples, Fla., and gathered feedback on the spot. Next, the committee itself finally convened to discuss what should be done about the issues at hand.

Then it made its proposals, which is where we stand now. But — and it’s a big but — we’re not done yet.

The committee, through the NCAA, just sent out new surveys to every program and commissioner detailing each of its 22 proposed changes to the rule book and requesting feedback. The recipients have until July 2 to respond, and “we’re expecting a lot of feedback on that icing rule,” Karr said. The committee will reconvene via conference call on July 8 to discuss the responses, and can then make any adjustments it feels necessary before forwarding its finalized proposals on to NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel.

That group then either approves or vetoes the recommendations; the oversight panel does not have the authority to adjust proposals. Only once the latter panel has approved the final proposals have the recommendations become rules.

To Be, To Tweak, To Be Experimental, Or Not To Be

Those are the four fates that may await any of the 22 rule proposals currently on the table. As far as enforcing icing on the penalty kill goes, Karr says that the committee could submit the recommendation as is, or remove it from the list of proposals entirely — those are the two extreme solutions.

The middle ground could involve adjusting the proposal. For example, the rules committee may decide to allow line changes after icings, thus negating a previous rule amendment, or make any other such fixes or alterations it deems suitable. The other option is to declare the rule as “experimental”, only to be enforced in “exhibition” or “non-NCAA” contests, such as games against the Under-18 team or Canadian college programs. That option, though potentially confusing to fans at those games, would give college hockey a much greater frame of reference when considering the rules for full-time implementation.

At the end of the day, the proposals still have to undergo a lot more scrutiny, and possibly a fair bit of tampering before they appear in your 2010-12 NCAA ice hockey rule book.

“We hope that participation in the next phase is high, so the committee has the best possible data to fine-tune final proposals before moving them forward,” Karr said of the current surveying phase.

“The committee is working hard to make the game better and to reach the best conclusions given the information received,” he added. He stressed that he isn’t in the market of defending or promoting any particular rule amendment, but rather sees his job — and that of the rules committee — as encouraging whatever actions are generally deemed best for the sport of college hockey.

“I want to do what people want to do for the game,” he summed.


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