The Superbus's Thoughtpad

USA Hockey’s Rule Changes, And The Competing Cultures Of Hockey

Posted by Chris Bowen on July 8, 2013

usahockeyIt’s rule change time at USA Hockey again, which is always a tumultuous time. USA Hockey has been very progressive organization when it comes to advancing the game for both the sake of skill and safety, and those efforts have met with predictable pushback from senior people. In a few instances, I’ve been part of the pushback. I wasn’t a fan of the Advanced Developmental Model1 (ADM) when it first started, figuring it would not help the kids enough to offset for the poor chances to develop younger officials, and would not teach proper positioning. I was mistaken in that; kids learned skills in ADM that they simply can’t learn full-ice, where all most kids seem to do is chase the puck, get rid of it as soon as possible if they get it2, and watch as one or two kids who are obviously better than everyone skate down and pot breakaway goals in the top-shelf of a net being tended by a goaltender who isn’t tall enough to reach that high. The alternative – having a way to teach children the skills of the game, keep them engaged – as noted in this must read piece, USA Hockey had been losing kids as they age – and get them ready for the higher levels at something beyond skating straight and playing dump-and-chase. They also got rid of body checking at the Pee-Wee (U12) level, figuring that children were getting hurt too easily at an underdeveloped age, and due to the fact that children hit pubescence at different times, some 80lb. kids were getting crunched by 140lbs. kids, and parents were pulling their kids. I still think this is a mistake; learning how to take a hit and keep your head up is an important part of the game, and instituting that into the game at bantams just means a slightly bigger kid is probably getting hit by a 170lb. kid moving even faster. However, I hope to be proven wrong about this once there’s enough data to go off of.

This year, USA Hockey decided to double down on past changes, and it’s going to cause a rough adjustment period for everyone involved at the intermediate stages of the game.

Officials are mandated to wear visors – This was inevitable. I’m sure there will be the few stalwarts who will refuse and threaten to go elsewhere, but they’re out of space; I had to put mine on to work college, and I believe Federation requires it now, too. Even the American Hockey League mandates officials wear visors.

Frankly, I hate visors. I already wear glasses, and a visor just gives me another thing to get foggy and jack up my vision. But I’m thankful I had to get used to it last year so this year isn’t such an adjustment. It’s a good rule in the long term – I’m hoping it puts insurance costs down – and those who grew up wearing them won’t have the adjustment issues I had.

And for those who refuse to work with them, and run off to some men’s league instead? To hell with them, they probably weren’t that good anyway.

An effort is being made to better protect goaltenders – I haven’t seen the rules, but there are a lot of references in the rule change summary about the goaltenders’ privilege area, which leads me to believe that there’s going to be a greater standard of enforcement protecting the goaltender.

They’re doubling down on the body checking standard – One of the things that I believe USA Hockey got undoubtedly right was the body checking standard, where the intention is to define just what a body check should and shouldn’t be. It’s simple: body checks are intended to separate the player from the puck, and not meant to intimidate. The rules were written around, and ordered to be enforced by, a belief that actions that went over the line should be penalized, with the intention of taking Don Cherry hockey out of the lower levels of the game. They also intended to show the difference between a full check and simply a player holding their position, which I think every parent should be required to watch before being admitted to a rink and screaming at the referees.

They’ve further written some sections of the rules to adhere to this standard more, and changed how certain penalties are called. Most of them are minor, but the ones that will obviously get the most attention are the ones that fundamentally change senior hockey:

Every “aggressive” checking penalty – Head Contact, Charging and Boarding – now has a minimum of a minor plus a misconduct – Years ago, USA Hockey mandated that every checking from behind penalty received, at a minimum, a two minute minor plus a ten minute misconduct, with hits sending players into the boards mandating a major plus a game misconduct3. Naturally, in bigger games, a lot of referees got around this for anything even questionable by using other penalties. Someone getting smoked into the boards questionably received “boarding” penalties, quotes used intentionally. Open-ice hit from behind in the back? That became “cross-checking”. Basically, almost anything a referee could do to avoid having to give a player twelve minutes in penalties, they would do.

USA Hockey basically just told their referees to go pound sand. “Oh, you want to call boarding? Well, guess what, it’s the same penalty now!”

I can definitely see the intention of the rule changes beyond taking away the option for a referee to give a “lighter” penalty. As noted before, USA Hockey is really big into defining illegal checks, and is now backing up the standard with some teeth. From an educational standpoint, it’s an effective tool, especially considering the fact that the only people who should be checking are those in the bantam and higher ranges, people who should know how to play hockey in the first place. I can’t say I’m a fan of taking almost a period’s worth of ice time away from players, but if I guess if you want to enforce your rules, you have to make them hurt.

My problem isn’t the rules so much. It’s two-fold. The first is that I wish I had discretion as to which penalties I can assign. Someone turning at centre ice and getting hit in the numbers does not deserve to sit for two plus ten, and I resent having to give him that while just shrugging and going “lol rulebook, bro”. Virtually every hockey league on Earth is making it so that every body check is the responsibility of the player delivering the check, so now a split second is the difference between a clean check and a period’s worth of hockey. I want to be able to say “it’s a penalty, but not *that* much of a penalty” without having to get creative with the rules, which sets a bad precedent, especially from a supervisor.

But the most important thing, which is a bigger problem in some areas and leagues than others, is that a culture change is going to have to happen if USA Hockey wants these penalties called the right way.

Any “old school” hockey person I’ve talked to about the rules changes has reacted the same way: negatively. “Pussification” is a term often used, by multiple people, to describe what USA Hockey is doing to the game of hockey. These are people who grew up in the era that I did, where hockey was less a game than it was a crucible, where unassailable coaches barked out commands to go out there and hit him! Be tougher! To many of us, hockey was a war of violent attrition that occasionally featured power plays. Simply put, we complained just as much about a lot of the other rule changes, too.

The biggest complaint was towards USA Hockey’s standard on restraining fouls, which is similar to what the NHL has. Simply put: if there’s a stick on the hands, it’s a hook. If there’s obstruction of any kind for a player away from the puck, it’s interference. Fouls like this, many referees tend to call tightly in October, to set the standard, and lay off a little bit as the players “get it” and the games become more important. However, that’s not what USA Hockey wants. USA Hockey wants the same grade 34 penalty to be called in the final period of a championship game as it would be called in the first week of September.

This creates division among referees. Throw out the incompetents and the JFLs5; we’re talking about those who call a different standard depending on the game, and those who call the book, every time, as they’re told. A layman would think the latter referee would be the preferred one, but in honesty, they’re the ones more likely to be mocked, denigrated, and tossed aside in favor of those from the first group. Coaches say they want consistency, but the truth is that someone who calls the USA Standard as they’re instructed is much more likely to receive a complaint about their work than the guy who lets some things go. Since local scheduling bodies are responsible to the organizations they cover – without them, there’s nothing to schedule, after all – they’re going to abide by the wishes of their customers. It creates a catch-22; USA Hockey puts out a standard of play that is unpopular in many circles, but instructs those working with their patch to cal it, so those that follow their orders end up missing out on better assignments in favor of those who flat-out disobey what they’re told.

I’ll use an example from my own career. I was doing a game in the northern part of Connecticut a few years back, and one team simply refused to hit properly. Seemingly every time, the puck would be on its way to the receiver of the pass, and every time, the receiver would get lit up with a nasty hit before the puck got there. I don’t need a standard of play initiative to tell me what’s wrong with that; at best it’s interference, at worst it’s roughing or charging. So I called it. Then they got worse about it. So I called it some more. Long story short, I almost needed a police escort to get out of there, and I never worked for that group again. Calling the penalties as they’re supposed to be called effectively cost me my job.

Prior to this coming season, more creative officials – and yes, I’ve done this – could get away with calling other penalties to “mask” the more serious offenses that actually happened. A common example, as alluded to before, would be if a player hit someone who turned to make a pass on the back half of the body. The receiver goes down but gets right back up. Along the boards, many referees will call this “boarding”, while at open ice, it’s either a “cross-check” or “roughing”, with a warning to the coach of the team taking the penalty to watch the backs. Everything was understood, and as long as both teams got the benefit of the doubt, there was no real ruckus.

USA Hockey, for the most part, has taken this away. Yes, more creative officials can use “roughing”, but that’s not going to pass muster when a supervisor looks on the sheet and sees 23 roughing penalties and a trip. So, again, the dilemma comes into play: do referees do what they’re supposed to do, throw a kid out for 12 minutes of the game, and just point to the rulebook? Or do they let some of the more violent hits go in order to protect their jobs and not create a situation with the coaches and fans?

The answer should be obvious: call the penalties. But I’ve seen too often where actually doing that has hurt someone’s career. With the rules tighter, we need to consider if doing what we’re instructed to do and letting the rulebook back us up is still a pyrrhic victory.

1 – For those who aren’t aware: ADM replaces full-ice games with games going from end-board to end-board, with other parts of the rink being used for skills development

2 – I know coaches at the mite and squirt, and lower pee-wee levels who have their kids dump and chase; just dump it into the corner, hope to get it back, and throw it at the corner. Any coach who does this below AA hockey should immediately be fired, because they are stunting the development of their players to win a 2-1 game that ultimately means absolutely nothing.

3 – This is a big deal considering the fact that another rule was added mandating that players receiving three or more majors in a season are to be given progressively more strident suspensions. We’ll call this the Shanahan Rule.

4 – I feel that every action that could lead to a penalty in a hockey game can be graded on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being a 100% legal play, 10 being a no question, call-this-or-be-fired penalty, and everything else in between. It’s not simple enough to say “I call 3s and 4s!” because there’s so much context in the flow of a game. Simply put, I call a Midget-level gong show much tighter than a fast-moving Bantam game.

5 – Just a Fucking Linesman