Slowly but surely, Hockey East looking to reclaim the game

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna was in attendance. - The visiting Boston University Terriers defeated the Boston College Eagles 5-3 (EN) on Friday, November 7, 2014, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna says games will be called tighter, and penalties will be aplenty in this early-season adjustment period (photo: Melissa Wade).

The groaning started in many arenas by 7:30 p.m. local time, and grew into a firestorm of frustration soon after.

A monsoon of penalties was turning five-on-five play into an endangered species.

“This is awful!”

“Let ’em play!”

“Put away the whistles!”

Have patience, folks. There’s a method to the madness.

The next month or so may not be pretty, but it should lead to a better game, according to Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna.

“The NCAA Rules Committee has instituted, and not for the first time, an increase focus on ‘standard of play,’ ” Bertagna, a member of the committee, says. “That’s another way of saying how tight are we going to call the game? The feeling was in recent years the little hook on the elbow, the hook on the glove or on the hip has been creeping into the game.

“We had a referee at our meetings in June and we showed a clip and he said, ‘I work the AHL and I work college hockey, and in the AHL that’s a penalty and in college hockey it isn’t…. I’m not told to call that in college hockey.’ It led us to a discussion of what we allow and what message are we sending?

“You’d hear from an official who didn’t call these things saying, ‘Well, I thought he fought through the hook, or he got a shot off, or there wasn’t a change of possession.’ So we had a really good conversation and said, ‘Wait a minute, if a guy had a step on somebody, you either have to catch up to him or lift his stick, but you can’t negate his advantage by illegally slowing him down and compromising him.’ We specifically said, ‘It doesn’t have to have a change of possession to be a penalty. If he gets a shot off, maybe it’s not as good of a shot as it would have been if he wasn’t hooked.’ So the language is that if an illegal action compromises the offensive player, you have to call it.”

Which isn’t to argue that the result was aesthetically pleasing this past weekend. One could argue, however, that it could have been better. Teams, with one exception, knew this was coming.

“Even though all the teams saw videos and there were clinics, there is an adjustment period,” Bertagna says. “So there were a lot of calls, and there will probably be a lot of calls this week.

“We did have one situation out in South Bend, [Indiana, home of Notre Dame]. Most of this information is disseminated through the conferences and from the conferences to their teams. Well, Arizona State is not in a conference, and on Friday night there were a ton of calls and it turned out that they knew nothing about this ‘standard of play.’ Our supervisor of officials, [Dan Schachte], was out there and met with [Arizona State coach] Greg Powers and showed him the tape, and he was appreciative, and the game on Saturday was a lot different.

“So there will be growing pains. And unfortunately when there are a lot of calls under the new standard, and then there are a few bad calls –calls where there were good defensive plays and they were called penalties — it makes people [even more frustrated]. If just the ones that should be called are called, were going to have some long games [until teams adjust]. You don’t need those three or four mistakes. I think this past weekend, we probably had a few mistakes.”

If you’ve been around for a dozen years or so, you’ve probably got a feeling of déjà vu right now. That’s because you have seen this movie before. Following the 2004 national championship game in which Denver beat Maine, 1-0, the Rules Committee first tried to solve the ‘standard of play’ problem.

“If you look at the tape of that game, there was so much holding along the boards, the bottom hand would come off the stick and get around the guy, the stick went between the legs,” Bertagna says. “That game, as much as anything, led to a huge discussion and we did clean up [the game]. As soon as you saw the guy’s bottom hand come off the stick, it was a red flag [for the referee] to watch where the hand went. If the hand went around the body, a penalty was called.

“The last couple of years, the chip-and-dump where it’s one-on-one and the guy chips it off the boards, it used to be that you had two seconds to pin the guy against the boards. Now, unless it’s a bang, bang play, the defender immediately has to turn and play the puck. You can’t interfere.

“Once we focused on that and guys got it, you could see players start to make the hit and realize, ‘Oh, I can’t do that!’ and he’d make the turn. So when we do focus [on fixing a problem], as long as we stay with it, we can change behavior.

“They’re not new rules. They’re the same rules. It’s just a focus on actually calling them. When we did this in 2004-2005, it took about a month for everybody to get on the same page. We changed behavior, but over the 10 years or so, I don’t think we stayed with it.”

Surprises on the Weekend

Longtime Hockey East followers might have thought this weekend’s results were a call to run for the hills. The barbarian horde had crashed through the city gates.

Hockey East went 0-for-3 against Atlantic Hockey.


Ironically, Hockey East posted a winning record against every other conference (except the Big Ten, which it hasn’t yet played), but struck out against The Little Conference That Could.

Atlantic Hockey loyalists might cringe at that depiction of their league and point to its many high moments, most notably in the NCAA tournament, but the fact is that it was only a month ago that the league announced it would join the rest of Division I hockey and allow the NCAA maximum of 18 scholarships. So Atlantic teams are not yet on an even footing with their D-I brothers, having gone from 12 scholarships to 13 beginning with the 2014-15 season, and then 14 in 2015-16.

So the reference above to The Little Conference That Could isn’t meant as belittling, but rather reflective of how its teams haven’t been skating on a level ice surface. It’s been tilted against them and yet they’ve piled up so many successes. (For those with short memories, Bentley swept eventual Hockey East champion Northeastern last year, Sacred Heart tarnished UMass-Lowell’s banner raising three years back, and then there’s Atlantic’s wins in the NCAA tournament.)

But three-for-three against the league that likes to pride itself as the best in college hockey, top to bottom? (Air Force 2, Boston College 1; Bentley 5, New Hampshire 1; Sacred Heart 2, Merrimack 1)

“From where I sit, we had a great weekend,” Bertagna says. “We ended up with a 60 percent winning percentage.”

But the three losses to Atlantic Hockey?

“It’s not the first time,” he says. “These are important games for these schools. They don’t often get them in their building, so they have to go on the road; they’re the underdogs. It’s a credit to the teams that win those games.

“Especially Sacred Heart [this weekend]. The power-plays were 14 to 5 [against]. They stuck it out and it’s a nice win for their program.

“They’ve got good coaches in that league. There are no gimmies anymore. When we talk about our strength top-to-bottom, it’s not to say that the other leagues aren’t strong or college hockey itself isn’t growing. We’re happy with the different strengths in our league, but the other leagues are building at the same time.”

How ‘Bout them Black Bears?

The most stunning surprise of all this past weekend was a very pleasant one. Maine, picked in the league coaches’ poll to finish last, swept Rensselaer, a better-than-.500 team last season.

Especially promising is that the Black Bears engineered the sweep in two very different ways. On Friday night, they jumped out early and won going away, 5-1. One night later, however, they dug themselves an early hole, giving up two shorthanded goals, but still came storming back for a 4-2 win.

“We played pretty well overall, though not perfectly by any stretch,” Maine coach Red Gendron says. “We played pretty well and got off to a great start Friday night, but on Saturday, RPI pushed back in a big way. Full marks to them for elevating their intensity and the quality of their play, and we didn’t play nearly as well.

“But we got very good goaltending from Rob McGovern. Otherwise the deficit could have been more, and we found a way to carry the play in the third period and score a couple of goals.”

Perhaps most promising of all is how much of an impact several freshmen made. Mitchell Fossier had four goals, Chase Pearson had two goals and an assist, Patrick Shea had a goal and an assist and Ryan Smith had two assists. And according to Gendron, Pat Holway, a 6-4, 200-pound defenseman, also played well without scoring any points.

“We’re pretty excited about our freshman class, but we’re not naive to think that they’re going to have multiple-point weekends every weekend,” Gendron says. “It’s hard. College hockey is hard.

“But at the same time there are only two ways you can get confidence. You’ve either done it before so you know that you can do it again, and that gives you a reason to feel confident. Or you’ve worked as diligently as possible to prepare yourself in practice, and [you’ve paid attention] to how you eat and how much rest you get and all of those kind of things. That’s how you earn the right to be confident.

“The bottom line is a lot of our freshman — the freshmen who were in the lineup over the weekend — they’ve done it now so they know they have the right to be confident moving forward.”

As for Maine and its projected cellar-dwelling finish, Gendron is having none of it.

“Nothing that other people think about us matters to us,” he says. “My job is to try to get us better every day. We play inside the glass, not in the media, not with the opinions of any outside sources. Games are going to be played at Alfond and on the road, and it’s what we do with those games that’s going to [decide] what our season ultimately looks like.

“I knew the quality of the players that we had returning. You never fully know what your incoming players are actually going to be able to do right away, but I feel pretty strongly that they’re going to be good. You hope the period of adjustment that’s inevitable isn’t overly painful.

“But our freshman played well and our veterans played well, regardless of whether or not they ended up on the scoresheet. We got good goaltending from somebody who’s been there in the past, and we got excellent defensive play from people like Rob Michel and Mark Hamilton and Eric Schurhamer. We got great weekends out of people like Nolan Vesey, who struggled for a lot of last year to put up numbers, and he had four assists on the weekend. So that’s pretty good.”

But it’s only a start. And second-ranked, perennial power Quinnipiac looms on Friday.

“It’s one weekend,” Gendron says. “Whatever it was that happened against RPI, none of that matters against Quinnipiac.”

But for a league that had grown accustomed to see the Black Bears in NCAA tournaments and their fans flocking into the TD Garden for Hockey East champions, last weekend certainly caught people’s attention.

“I think certain programs are really important in certain leagues to be good,” Bertagna says. “I think Maine is one of those programs that if they’re good, it’s good for Hockey East, because of the potential and what the experience at Alfond is like and the tradition up there. So for Maine to start off with two wins, it’s huge for them and I think it’s a good thing for the league.”