The NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee begins meetings Tuesday with a packed agenda that those in charge hope will improve the college hockey game.
Every two years, the rules committee is charged with reviewing the rule book that applies to both the men’s and women’s game at the Division I and III levels. This being what most appropriately call a “rules change year” means that this week’s meetings could have significant impact on the game.
The two major rules up for evaluation are ones that have been talked about for some time: the use of full visors vs. reduced shields and overtime variations and shootouts. Both have been highly studied aspects of the game over the past few years, with much of the data for each coming from leagues such as the USHL and international hockey.
According to Ed McLaughlin, the Niagara athletic director and rules committee chair, the adoption of a three-quarter shield, similar to one that is worn by Minnesota Wild forward Dany Heatley, seems to have the support of coaches.
“The coaches, by and large, want the three-quarter visors. The student-athletes want the visors,” McLaughlin said. “And both the coaches and student-athletes want it to be only visors and not being able to wear the full shield as well.”
The one exception would be that players with face injuries would be allowed to wear the full shield while recovering.
The three-quarter visor, if adopted, will be used only in the men’s game. Women’s hockey will continue to use full face shields.
The actual visor being proposed has changed significantly since the committee examined this rule change two years ago. At that time, the proposed shield was a half shield, which covered the eyes but not the nose or cheekbones. The three-quarter shield provides more protection for the cheekbones while also reducing the ability for a stick to make contact with the eyes.
— Rules committee chair Ed McLaughlin
“The [three-quarter] shield covers a lot,” McLaughlin said. “When you have it on, getting your stick up there by your eye is nearly impossible.”
While the visors seem to have strong support, a rule that many thought might enter college hockey likely will not.
Shootouts, which have been used by the CCHA in league play for four seasons, do not have support across Division I men’s hockey. Similarly, there doesn’t seem to be significant support for playing four-on-four in overtime as the NHL does.
Because of that, the committee is looking into other solutions to reduce the number of tie games and provide winners and losers in more regular-season games.
“I was a little surprised it wasn’t more forceful for four-on-four,” McLaughlin said. “But [changing] overtime is still something we will discuss.”
One option could be the expansion of the overtime period. College hockey employs the standard five-minute overtime in the regular season, but that could be expanded to 10 or even 20 minutes in the hopes of determining more winners. Some college hockey leagues used a 20-minute overtime in the regular season in the late 1980s.
“The coaches seem to be all over the board in the different variations of overtime,” McLaughlin said. “There was no consensus on overtime.”
The rules committee agenda will also include two potential rule changes that were brought to light in this past NCAA tournament.
The committee will consider allowing goals that were scored as the defensive team dislodges the net. When Michigan State played Union in the NCAA regional tournament, an apparent Spartans goal was reviewed and disallowed when the officials determined the net, as the puck entered, was slightly raised off its pegs by a Union defender. The rule change would make goals stand in select cases when the defense causes the net to dislodge.
“We want to find ways where we can have more goals count,” said Steve Piotrowski, director of officials for the CCHA and NCAA rules editor. “The net can conceivably be on the pegs but if it just rocks up that goal, under our current rule, would be disallowed.”
Another change would be to the criteria used for instant replay, particularly when it comes to the play being offside immediately as the goal is scored. Last season, Union scored an empty-net goal from center ice in the NCAA Northeast Regional final against Massachusetts-Lowell while a Dutchmen attacker was still in the attacking zone.
Despite clear evidence on video that the play was offside, current replay criteria does not allow the official to review whether a play is onside when the goal is scored.
“We have the capabilities [to review offside plays],” NCAA director of officials Frank Cole said. “If we have video review and we have conclusive evidence and everyone sees it in the audience, why should we limit the officials as not being able to review something like that?”
Cole emphasized that this change does walk somewhat of a fine line between reviewing plays and taking the place of officials.
“We can’t officiate by video review,” Cole said. “We’re not going [to use replay] to call penalties, but in critical situations [such as the Lowell-Union game], we need to use it.”
One potential rule change that could have enormous impact concerns goals redirected off a skate. The current rule disallows all goals off skates other than those that are clearly accidental. That rule is different from the one used in the NHL and in international hockey, which allows players to redirect shots with their skates as long as there is no clear and distinct kicking motion. The proposed new rule would align NCAA hockey with the NHL.
And while the coaches supported this rule change in discussion, the committee pushed the envelope with one simple question.
“We said, ‘Guys, would you be comfortable losing a national championship game on a goal that goes off a skate?'” Piotrowski said. “Some respond and say, ‘If that’s the rule then we have to accept it.'”
Hand passes will also be discussed by the committee. According to McLaughlin, the sentiment among the coaches is to either allow hand passes in all zones or eliminate them entirely. The current rule allows for the defensive team to pass the puck with the hand in the defensive zone only, provided the pass is collected in the defensive zone as well.
“In terms of hand passes, if we change [the current rule] they want it all or nothing,” McLaughlin said.
In the last rules change two years ago, one of the highest-impact changes was the addition of hybrid icing. For the last two seasons, officials have judged icing based on whether the defensive team reaches the faceoff dot in the defensive zone before the attacking player.
According to Piotrowski, the committee is examining if the defensive player’s position should be judged at the top of the faceoff circle so as to allow a larger cushion for the linesman to blow the whistle before the players reach the end boards.
“Part of this rule is the safety aspect,” Piotrowski said, noting a major difference between hybrid icing and the NHL’s more dangerous touch icing. “A point of emphasis for the officials is making the decision much more quickly. The less time to make those decisions, the closer they get to the end boards and that’s where the dangerous situation rears its ugly head.”
The determination of what rules to review, and potentially change, comes from voting and discussion during the American Hockey Coaches Association convention in Naples, Fla., in April. Each league conducts straw polls on rules it would like changed and then presents them to the entire membership on both the men’s and women’s side.
And though the rules committee will make decisions this week as to what should be changed, nothing will be official until the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Committee meets in July.
Some rules, particularly the conversion to the three-quarter shield, will also need the blessing of an NCAA safety committee before the July meeting.
The final rule book will be in place by the end of July.