College Hockey Tries to Open Things Up
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It was an offseason of change in college hockey, as it often is.
The ECAC was foremost among those in flux. One of its most dominant and controversial personalities, Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni, left to return to his native Green Bay and become a junior coach. He was replaced by former Harvard and NHL star Ted Donato, who has never been a coach on any level before.
The league also voted Quinnipiac into the conference, to replace Vermont next season. That move will have the requisite ripple effects, as Atlantic Hockey looks to add one or more teams. If any of those teams are from the CHA, the never-ending struggle for the CHA's survival will come into sharp focus again.
Most importantly, the ECAC also overhauled its entire structure, finally jettisoning the albatross that was its all-sport home office. A conference with all the overhead and bureaucracy of being "all-sport" without any of the benefits. Not to mention it was led by Phil Buttafuoco, who through benign neglect at best did the league no favors. The athletic directors finally saw enough and voted itself autonomy, creating in essence a completely separate conference, with Steve Hagwell in charge.
But overall, the biggest change, if we can call it that, came late in the summer, when the six conference commissioners and the NCAA came together to send out an open letter to the college hockey community. In it, they outlined their expectations for officiating this year.
Spearheaded by CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos, and written by Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, the memo outlined the concerns over the state of the game. And, with that, it outlined what the leagues intend to do about it.
Namely, the concern about where the game is headed revolves around the continual drop in scoring. There are as many explanations for why this is happening as there are people, and no doubt the issue is multi-faceted. But it is real.
"This is about the quality of the game," said Anastos. "The game in many ways has eroded, and we need to get that back."
As a result, the commissioners, with the blessing of most coaches, decided to do something about it. And the easiest thing to do about it right off the bat, was simply to enforce rules that were already on the books.
In particular, referees have been instructed to crack down on holding and interference away from the puck. The types of fouls that inhibit the offense from creating scoring chances, by taking away time and space.
"This is the most easily addressed, because we can better control this area than any other area," said Anastos. "The NBA has been as good as anybody in changing rules to encourage the type of play they want. I think we need to do a better job in our sport to have ongoing analysis of how the sport is played, trying to set up our own research and development, analyze as many games as possible to see what it tells."
In the past, the trend of officiating has moved more and more towards letting the players play — and only calling penalties when scoring chances are taken away. But does it have to be a direct scoring chance, with a player in control of the puck being fouled, for it to inhibit the offense?
"When you really examine the game, if a guy gets a half a step advantage, well today, that's a huge advantage," said Anastos. "If we allow a guy to give a tug with the arm, well, you're negating the advantage.
"If I showed you the video, you would look, there's 29 clips you'd say to yourself that's a penalty, and 28 of those 29 were not called penalties. The scariest part to me in my investigation is that our culture is so acceptable to such a liberal interpretation of the rules. Shame on us for being critical for how referees call game."
Said Bertagna, "'Let 'em play' is not let 'em play. It just gives the defenders more license to play with the rules. We got to let the best players play. This isn't about Lemiuex, Jagr ... all players benefit the from the rulebook."
While this has been a burgeoning problem for quite a while, the issue came to a head thanks to last season's NCAA tournament. Without taking anything away from the teams involved, a lot of college hockey people were concerned by the lack of excitement from the game itself. The games were close, and there was drama, but it was not great theater, and often not great hockey.
"The NCAA showed a video, and I was embarassed because a lot of our [Hockey East] teams were involved," Bertagna said. "Taking the bottom hand off the stick and wrapping it around the guy, bear hugging, not allowing guys to play. It leads to frustrating elbows, scrums after the whistle ..."
Anastos said his first Frozen Four as CCHA commissioner was watching a great game between Boston College and Michigan at the Fleet Center to decide the national championship.
"Six years later, the same building, watching two very good teams, it wasn't the same," he said. "And it wasn't just the championship game, it was all the games. In BC game, when Maine pulled ahead, they played a certain style where you could just change the channel. That's not what we want."
Is it a panacea? Absolutely not. Goalies won't get less athletic. Players won't get smaller. Videotape analysis and the defensive systems it fosters will not disappear. But at the very least, the college hockey community has decided it has to do something. And calling what is on the books is the first step.
"The game is played in a different manner than it was 15 years ago. When you look at things that have affected the game to create today's game you look at equipment — not just goalie's, but [Maine coach] Tim Whitehead's [post-Championship game] comment about [Denver] blocking 27 shots. ... Scoring is radically down ... goals against average at all-time lows ...
"I can tell you that [they were] not teaching Guy Lafleur to block shots. Because of their equipment — and coaching is part of it — but no question that quality of equipment is so much better, it makes it easier.
"Years ago when glass wasn't as high on the side walls, now it's easier to dump in and dump out. And it's very difficult for officials to get out of the way. ... Years ago you never dumped the puck off chicken wire.
"So people talk about the size of the goal and equipment — there's no one big answer."
What will make this work where the NHL's attempts haven't?
"I really believe that if we do the right thing and have the right resolve — which has always been the weakness — the officials will make all the effort. But we're sending a mixed message," Anastos said.
Coaches are concerned on two levels: Some are cynical the referees will be consistent with it the whole season; others are concerned there will be too many whistles.
But the commissioners have decided that having coaches be the judge of officials' performance is not the right approach. And that is where this differs from the past.
"We feel we've done a good job with the officiating program, but at the end of the day, the litmus test is how acceptable our officiating is with 12 coaches. But, thing is, what makes that right?" said Anastos. "Of those 12, there are four to six very totally different opinions. I'm not saying one's right, one's wrong. But the fact is when you have such a broad base, how can you say average it out and say we're doing OK? No, we have to create a standard and hold everyone accountable.
"We've evaluated them based on the acceptability in the coaching fraternity. That's not necessarily fair, but that's what we've done. So they have to enforce the rules, but do it to the acceptable level of 12 different people.
"Sometimes, you'll get a report from coaches, and wonder, 'Were these guys at the same game?' And the coaches, they'll admit that. But the truth is, if we can come up with the system, a standard, and ask coaches to coach to it, and ask players to do it ..."
Early on, there is clearly an effect. Power plays are high. Ultimately, however, it is not power plays that will make the game more exciting and open. They may have a higher chance of a goal being scored, but a key to Anastos' thinking is that goals, in and of themselves, are not the issue. It's open play and scoring chances.
In reality, power plays can actually be fairly dull. A lot of guys standing around while the puck gets moved around the perimeter. In the long term, this will only be a positive if the power play opportunities come down — not because the referees are being more lenient again, but because the players are not committing the fouls.
"The challenge is cultural change as much as anything."
There is more to come.
Anastos said he jumped on the Detroit Pistons bandwagon during their NBA championship run last season, and started more closely following some of the rules.
"They have defensive 3-seconds [violations]," Anastos said. "You can't just sag into the key area and protect from shots in the tighter area. Now ... everyone sags to the net and there's five guys to block shots. It's hard to get shots through.
"Good coaches will coach to the limits of the rules.
"The game's at a pivotal juncture. I'm very concerned that in the states, people will not even notice or care. It bothers me to see TV ratings — the World Cup is outdone by poker. It gets double the ratings. When the U.S. played Russia, the rating was 0.4 on ESPN2, and at same time, championship poker on ESPN got a 1.7."
The increased emphasis on holding and interference is all about putting hockey's best foot forward. In time, and with enough resolve, then perhaps college hockey can be the trailblazer for change in the sport as a whole.