Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Thought on the Minnesota Rule Changes

In fallout to the injuries suffered by Jack Jablonski, the MSHSL (the league governing the game where the incident occurred) made several rule changes - minors have become mandatory majors for boarding, checking from behind, and head contact.  Along with the changes, several parties involved with the change have called out USA Hockey and suggested the changes should be implemented on a national level.

Note: After more research than I'd honestly intended to put into an off-the-cuff thoughts post, I still am unable to determine whether MSHSL hockey games are run via the USA Hockey rulebook or have a completely separate set of legislation (or USA Hockey + Supplement, which is how many leagues handle these things).  Given the enforcement standards cited in news articles relating to the rule change, the implication is that they operate independently of USA Hockey while many of their players maintain dual-affiliation.  Under USA Hockey's current rulebook, Checking from Behind is EITHER a 2 & 10 (minor plus misconduct) or a 5 & Game (major + game misconduct).  A Match Penalty can also be assessed.  It is not "only" a 2 & 10.

The intention behind the changes is good, and it's exactly the kind of reactionary legislation one might expect in the current situation.  "Someone got hurt because we left this on the table as an optional minor, or we had a gap in our rules, so let's make it clear to coaches and players that the act isn't worth the risk.  If we change the cost/benefit ratio, players will stop doing it."

The problem is that it's not going to work, at least not the way it's intended to, and those making noises in USA Hockey's direction seem to be missing the point that the USA Hockey system is designed to allow referees discretionary authority while still building in the stronger punishments.

The Why's:

For one thing, turning something into a major penalty (even with a mandatory game misconduct) doesn't remove it from the game, it just changes the frustration or desperation level required before a player executes the act.  If pumping up the penalties was all it took to eliminate an offensive action, both fighting and spearing would be non-existent in most leagues.

I'm not saying that the consequences for certain actions shouldn't be steep - "Intent to Injure" and "Resulting in Injury" are two phrases that referees would love to eliminate from their repertoire, and most are perfectly comfortable handing out majors and (when warranted) match penalties if they feel necessary.

The problem is that if you take away the referee's discretionary authority by making an item a mandatory major, you're going to see calls for those infractions drop off while behavior remains unchanged.  There has always been a fair amount of subjectivity in calls made on the ice; it's a result of on-ice officials being human and also the practical realities of keeping a game moving.  I've seen a game in which every single minor penalty was called: it ran 30 minutes over its alloted ice time, and at the conclusion of the last round of penalties both teams should have forfeited due to the 15-Penalty rule.

Something that exacerbates the issue in the MSHSL situation is that when one reaches the high school level there's a portion of on-ice infractions that simply don't get called.  I worked a series of U16 and U18 tournament games earlier this fall as an off-ice official, and got the same comments from pretty much every officiating pair who came through my box - it's U16/U18, the game moves fast and things are going to get missed.

Add to that the fact that a major can often be a game-changing penalty, and the result is going to be more minors for "interference" and less majors for "boarding."  This is going to be more strikingly evident when one factors in the involuntary/non-intent component of a call for head-contact.  I see a lot of referees in my "day" job, and most are willing to give players the benefit of the doubt when no injury occurs as a result of an incident.  Case in point, I've seen a half dozen incidents where players have removed their helmets and cages in an altercation, but only once has a match penalty been assessed.

It's a little different at the HS level, especially somewhere like Minnesota which has such a strong development program, but even with higher skill-sets accidents happen more often than any of us would like.

By the time officials are working high school games, they're expected to have a minimum level of experience under their belt, and to its credit, Minnesota is one of the regions in the USAH system that is most adherent to the guidelines and regulations put forth by the organization.  That being said, at a certain point a league needs to trust its officials to make the right call in a situation.  The more severe penalties for Checking from Behind (608), Boarding (603), and Head Contact (620) have been on the books for years at this point.  Referees can and do apply them as they see fit.

If the problem is a lack of faith in the discretionary abilities of the on-ice officials in a given situation, then there's a far more serious issue going on here.  USA Hockey is at times lax about the regulation of its officials, but the practical reason behind that boils down to a lack of resources.  The majority of those involved in training, organizing, and overseeing the USA Hockey officials pool are volunteers - at best, they're reimbursed for expenses incurred during the performance of their duties, and most don't even receive that.  They do the best with what they have, and they give up their nights and weekends to make it work.

Are there holes in the system?  Most definitely.  Any bureaucracy has problems, and one made up of volunteers tends to be worse because there's the looming concern that if you drive someone away there may not be a warm body to take their place.  But my concern with the MSHSL rule changes is that they mask the bigger problems, giving the impression that stiffening penalties will "fix" the basic situation which resulted in Jack Jablonski's injuries.  Hockey is a complex sport, and the solutions to making it safer are going to require more than a few extra minutes in the penalty box.

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