Playing the game of ice hockey within the rules would seem like a simple concept. Yet all efforts to accomplish this objective have thus far proven elusive, from the NHL all the way down to the youngest levels. In a previous post I reported that Minnesota Hockey has retained the much harsher penalties for two of the three most dangerous plays in the game. In fact, Minnesota has the toughest rules in youth and high school hockey in the country. The question is, will this be enough to change the culture of the sport?
If changing rules and increasing the severity of penalties for plays that are seen as dangerous is the solution, then we are a good shape. Unfortunately, the reality is that people do not like rules, and breaking them seems to have become a national past time. Witness Penn State football, the majority of drivers on the freeways in this country, and the egregious acts committed by "respectable" people on Wall Street and in other industries.
In youth hockey we have spent the past twenty years "educating" coaches and parents abut the correct way to teach and play the game. On-ice officials take training clinics each year to improve their skills and knowledge of the rule book. They also learn from veteran officials how to call a game in a way that ends up subverting the rule book. The fact that physical play in the game continues to increase and injuries continue to rise each year is clear evidence that education efforts to date have failed. Yet we continue down the same path hoping for better outcomes. I suggest that hope is not a plan.
As we are soon to enter the fall/winter season there will be renewed emphasis on rule enforcement. On-ice officials in Minnesota will be directed to err on the side of strict interpretation of the rules. The question is, will they do it? Again, we hope so.
A telling video
To illustrate the challenge we face in making hockey safer consider the video I was recently sent of a classic check from behind violation during a game at the USA Hockey National Under-15 camp in Rochester, New York last month. The camp brought together the top 120 fifteen-year-old players from across the country, and, one would expect, the top referees and linesmen. As the illegal and blatant check sent the player into the boards head first, you could see the official right there in the video with his arm raised to signal a penalty. He then had a choice: he could have penalized the check from behind as a five minute major and ten minute misconduct, or he could have assessed a double minor - two minutes for roughing and two minutes for boarding (which in Minnesota is a mandatory 5 minute major and 10 minute misconduct). What did he do? He chose to call the offender for a four minute minor penalty. The opponent did not get off so easy. Although he avoided a serious head or neck injury of the kind that Jack Jablonski suffered last year in Minnesota, he did sustain a broken arm, which will keep him off the ice for the next several months.
The crux of the matter is that officials always have been and continue to be resistant to imposing stiffer penalties. In doing so, they completely negate and undermine the efforts of coaches and hockey administrators like me who are attempting to make the game safer for all players.
It seems inevitable that we will reach a tipping point: Either we will enforce the rule book more consistently or the rules need to be changed to reflect the reality of how the game is actually being played and, more importantly, officiated. Hockey is a very physical game and has always been for kids who are tough enough to endure. The game is played in a very hostile environment that is cold and on a surface are is hard and unyielding. Maybe the game is not for everybody, at least the way we play it now.
This coming season will be a good test to see if the leaders of the game are serious about player safety and allowing the players to enjoy the game within the rules. If past is prologue, I doubt it. I hope I am wrong.