Playing by the rules promotes safe, skillful hockey
Posted by Dean Holden at May 1st, 2014
by Jack Blatherwick, 17 April 2014
The guardians of tradition in the NHL (the Don Cherry over-the-hill-gang) have successfully swung hockey backwards a few years. They stubbornly defend the tradition that refs should bury their whistles during the playoffs, so games are decided by unwritten rules. Of course, this favors defense and thuggery over skill, so the team that hoists Lord Stanley’s Cup will be survivors of a game that differs from the regular season like night and day.
Last June, the Chicago Blackhawks survived every insult the playoff wars threw at them. Their skills and speed were one goal too much for challengers to negate. That’s the problem with this charade: The object for most teams is to find ways – with the assistance of muted referees – to negate the skills of a potentially beautiful, fast game, the kind we see in every Olympics. Think of the impact this has on youth hockey and every level below the NHL, where skill development and safety suffer in an environment that favors the negation of skills.
The in-season NHL game held so much promise a decade ago when the league decided to dust off the rulebook and feature speed and skill. That decision made Cherry and the Neanderthals pretty nervous, because referees were enforcing interference and stick penalties precisely as written. “What?!? You can’t call that little slash a real ‘slash,’” they screamed. “This game will turn into a damn quilting party.”
But the referees had their (in-season) mandate from the league: Call penalties the way they’re written. This led to big changes in team strategies. Scouting staffs had to retool. No longer did the first draft picks belong to the biggest and baddest of the 18-year-olds, but a new generation of smaller, faster, more skillful players were atop the annual draft party. In-season, at least, they became superstars of the game, and it looked like the NHL would lead the hockey world to a rebirth of skill development.
However the old geezers weren’t about to let this crazy idea (enforcing the rulebook) tarnish their Stanley Cup. After all, tradition says that the playoffs should be decided by players, not referees. At first blush that sounds good, but if you said the same thing in other sports like golf, then hackers like me would just kick our ball out of the rough, improve our lies when we need to, forget a stroke or two here and there, and close the gap on the good guys with all the skill.
If Don Cherry were the czar of track, the official starters wouldn’t disqualify those who jump the gun. Instead, they’d “let the athletes decide the outcome.” In tennis, the linesmen would overlook a serve that just missed, and of course a ‘just-miss’ is defined as clearly as a ‘not-so-bad-crosscheck’ in hockey. Or a ‘slight’ hook or hold or slash.
I get a kick out of hockey’s most sacred tradition along the lines of ‘letting-the-players-decide-things.’ For a short (undefined) time after the whistle, we allow trash-talking, punches to the head, spearing, slashing and cross-checking. These violations are acceptable as long as they occur after the whistle. This long-standing tradition wasn’t ‘messed with’ in the move to enforce the rulebook 10 years ago. It’s too important a tradition, because it says something about our sport. Huh?
But what does a 10-year-old from Lake Wobegon know about unwritten rules? When is a slash really a slash? How long after the whistle is he allowed to cross-check? Is a little hooking OK on defense? When a teammate is checked hard, should he retaliate as his heroes do in the Stanley Cup? Can children be expected to play by unwritten rules or is it dangerous and counterproductive for adults to emulate the NHL intellectual elites? Herb Brooks had an answer to that question when he spoke to coaches, “We are the temporary caretakers of this game. We cannot act like the NHL.”
Look, the NHL is going to do whatever it wants, and right now it chooses to allow defenders to cheat more during the playoffs. We will hear dozens of times during the playoffs the same advice from TV analysts we heard during the college and high school tournaments recently: “Team X will have to slow the Blackhawks down, or Chicago will get away with their fast, skillful game.” It almost sounds like playing with speed and skill is somehow cheating.
The NHL is a business, and they are certainly allowed to sell whatever product they prefer, even if they ignore their adverse impact on the amateur game. However, if USA Hockey and Hockey Canada were leaders, they’d enforce their own rulebooks or stop charging a fee for pretending to do so. But they’re not leaders; they’re politicians, so they are big on talk and not so big on action. They and their soulmates in the Minnesota State High School League, the NCAA and Minnesota Hockey could easily promote skills and safety by randomly monitoring, filming and grading referees.
Enforcement of the rules – not printing new ones – is the key to safe, skillful hockey. This was obvious by the immediate changes in the NHL regular season game a decade ago, and we’d see similar changes at all levels of hockey with action by the legislative bodies. It’s a simple fact of behaviorism: Enforce the rules, and coaches will emphasize skills. Ignore the rules, and coaches will emphasize defense.
When Jack Jablonski was injured, the MSHSL hurried to come up with a rule that sounds as if it is a solution, but over time it is actually self-defeating. By legislating that every boarding infraction should be a major penalty, they made it harder for referees to call the penalty.
If the bodies that pretend to lead our sport really want to make the game safer and better, they would make sure the referees they certify call penalties consistently as written. There is no room outside the NHL for unwritten interpretations to steer the direction our game should move. Anyone who doesn’t like the rulebook can try to change it, not advocate for referees to ignore certain infractions.
Enforcement of the rules – not printing new ones – is the key to safe, skillful hockey.