The Power of Four
Another Official on the Ice, More Penalties ... The WCHA Adjusts
by Joshua Berhow/CHN Writer
As the 2008-09 season began just a few months ago, most of the preseason talk in the WCHA centered on the new four-official system and the inaugural year of the penalty crackdown.
But as the season reaches its halfway point, it seems the penalties — a crackdown on stick fouls and other interference-type calls emphasized in the WCHA after being instilled in other conferences in previous seasons — along with an added referee, hasn’t had too much of an effect.
“Going in, we all knew it would be a work in progress,” said Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin. “It takes time for the referees to adjust, too.”
After testing the four-official unit last season, the WCHA put it into use full-time this year, along with a few stricter penalty calls, including the following: Any sort of pulling motion with the stick could be called as a hook, any sort of slash motion toward a player or player’s stick would be slashing, and a more watchful eye would be given to tripping penalties, among others.
Of the 10 WCHA teams, only six are averaging more penalty minutes per game now than they did all of last season. Wisconsin and Alaska-Anchorage are averaging about 6.4 more penalty minutes a game, and Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth both average about four more penalty minutes a game.
Numbers have changed, but not as significantly as some thought they would.
“Everybody is slowly adjusting,” said Denver head coach George Gwozdecky. “I think the players have adjusted, you’re seeing games played with fewer penalties, and I think having the extra official on the ice has been a benefit to the games in this league. It’s been a good thing.”
Only three teams — St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech — had fewer penalty minutes in their conference-opening game than they averaged all of last season. The other seven all increased their numbers, although it might credited to the learning curve.
“The referees did a good job of establishing what they were going to call at the beginning of the year,” said Gophers forward Ryan Stoa. “I think they’ve done a pretty good job of keeping it consistent.”
Although special teams has always been a crucial part of the game, coaches were even more concerned with the units this season, as they were unsure if penalties would skyrocket or if their teams would adjust to the changes. But midway through the year, it’s Denver and Minnesota perched at the top of the conference standings, and, not surprising, they both lead the WCHA in special teams net, at plus-11 and plus-16, respectively.
“It’s huge,” said Stoa of special teams. “So much of the game is special teams. We’ve had to kill more five-on-threes this year than I have in my entire career. But it’s definitely different this year.”
Added Sandelin: “There’s going to be growing pains, but we still have to play the game. There’s going to be penalties.”
Whether or not the conference has benefited from the change, it seems as if coaches and players have adjusted well to some of the recent tweaks to the game. Either way, the whole situation is bound to get addressed again this summer.
"It’s a learning curve,” Sandelin said. “We’ll stick with it and hopefully it gets better, but the biggest thing is staying with it.”