NCAA Focused On Re-Establishing Rules Emphasis
Officials look to close the gap on 2004 standard cutting down on obstruction
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
If you’ve been to a college hockey game in the first three weeks of the season, you’ve noticed the uptick in penalties called across the nation.
It’s been one of the biggest storylines of the season’s first month, with a new directive from the NCAA to clamp down on obstruction calls, such as interference, hooking and holding.
This isn’t the first time college hockey has gone down this path. Back in 2004, the directive was first implemented and similarly, a good portion of early-season games were filled with penalties as officials and players adjusted to the new standards.
“The game was being muddied down and the skill players weren’t allowed to play,” NCAA secretary-rules editor Steve Piotrowski said. “Players were using illegal tactics to gain advantages on a skill player, and they weren’t being penalized. We felt it was necessary (at that time) to reclaim the rulebook and identify a specific standard.”
Over the last 12 years, that directive never officially went away, but there was new emphasis placed on player safety, specifically contact to the head penalties and hits from behind.
Piotrowski said that the new emphasis on those calls allowed for the obstruction penalties to make a comeback, and this season an emphasis was put on re-establishing the 2004 effort.
“Because player safety has come to the forefront, what I think happened is that obstruction and restraining fouls have crept their way back into the game,” he said. “Now, we’d like to reclaim the rulebook again and reset to that standard. To make it simple, we created a number of target areas.”
Per the 2016-17 Standard of Play memo, which was circulated to every conference and program, the committee has identified four specific target areas:
1. Offensive players moving through the neutral or offensive zones being unfairly or illegally held-up while they make a legitimate attempt to get or remain open for a pass from a puck-controlling teammate.
2. Offensive players moving through the neutral or offensive zones being unfairly or illegally held-up while they attempt the legitimate pursuit of a loose puck.
3. Players along the boards, on or away from the puck, being unfairly or illegally restrained.
4. Puck carriers being impeded or losing legitimate opportunities by the illegal use of sticks on hands, arms, hips or other areas that compromise their ability to control the puck and create offense. This portion specifically notes that the loss of possession is not required for a penalty to be called.
Several coaches have been outspoken on the emphasis, voicing their displeasure. Other coaches say that special teams have occupied more of their practice times, while some teams have abandoned the tradition two power-play and two penalty-kill units in order to rotate more players on the bench and keep legs fresher.
“It’s not the way this game is intended to be played,” St. Lawrence head coach Mark Morris said of the crackdown. “It’s not fun for anyone in the building. It’s frustrating that it’s gotten to this point, but I’m hopeful that we use good common sense and we get back to playing hockey, getting some flow back in the game.”
“Someone — and not me — wants all this ticky-tacky stuff called,” Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle told the Wisconsin State Journal last week.
“A lot of that stuff, both ways, is not what any of these guys have grown up playing with, that standard. I get it if it’s impeding the play or taking something away. The refs are being told that by the commissioners. It’s not the refs at all. They’re good refs and they know what they’re doing. They’re just trying to do what they’re told, but, gosh, it seems ticky-tacky to me.”
The NCAA isn’t surprised at the reaction, but also points out that the officials have not been told to call more penalties. Rather, they’ve been told to hold the obstruction penalties to the standards that have been set, reinforcing that line in the sand between what is a penalty and what isn’t.
“These aren’t new rules,” Piotrowski said. “Hooking, slashing, interference, these rules have been in place. The concern was that the officials were going away from it. For example, if a guy was hooked but didn’t lose the puck because he was big and strong and just didn’t lose possession, they were letting that play on. That became acceptable to coaches as well. No longer is that acceptable. These aren’t new rules. There was not a directive to tell the officials to call more penalties, it was to call penalties that cross the line of the standard. As time goes on, we see it trending down a little bit.”
“There are some games that have been probably overcalled a little bit, but we feel comfortable where we are right now,” added NCAA national coordinator of officials, Frank Cole. “We see it turning in the right direction. ... I think the dividends long term will be worth it.”
Piotrowski also said that players should work to avoid raising red flags with officials. One of the biggest thing a player can do to avoid being penalized is to take proper body position before defending an opponent.
A player who is skating on a backcheck and makes contact with an opponent — regardless of whether or not he has the puck — without at first at least coming beside the opponent, skating in the same direction, is almost guaranteed to be called for a penalty.
“Body position is key for a defending player,” Piotrowski said. “Body position is determined by the skating player coming to the front or beside an opponent and traveling in the same direction. These are red flags to officials. If a player is coming back in the neutral zone, back-checking hard, and he’s desperate, what will be do with his stick? He’s probably going to reach out and that stick will become parallel. Once that happens, that’s a red flag. A parallel stick on the body of an opponent is not a penalty necessarily, but once it becomes a slash or hooking an arm, that’s a penalty. Players need to understand and adjust to the fact that they need to skate and put themselves in good position to make a legal check on a player.”
According to the Standard of Play memo, “A player who is behind an opponent, who does not have the puck, may not use his stick, body or free hand in order to restrain his opponent, but must skate in order to gain or reestablish his proper position in order to make a check.”
Body positioning is also something officials will be looking for on faceoff plays. This season, the NCAA extended the hash marks on in-zone faceoffs from 48 inches to 67 inches, which is what the NHL uses. The purpose of the change was to give officials a better visual in order to determine if obstruction penalties are happening off of faceoffs.
Teams often draw up faceoff plays with the purpose to free up players offensively through picks or other means.
“If a player skates into the path of a player trying to get out to the point and creates an obstruction, that is supposed to be called,” Piotrowski said.
“We knew there would be some adjustment,” he continued. “The first three weeks, we’re seeing changes each week. We’re capturing a lot of video to use as education.”