Saturday, 15 November 2008

Following Don Cherry

I'm not one to push the agenda of Mainstream Media when it comes to things like firing Gary Bettman or making the nets bigger. Rarely do I find cause to agree with the MSM when they speak out about hockey-related ideas to make the game better. However, Saturday night's Coach's Corner segment on Hockey Night In Canada is one of those times where I whole-heartedly agree with the media. Don Cherry was on his soapbox about no-touch icing, and, as you may know, I am totally behind the push to have this rule adopted by the NHL.

I have written about this topic before, but Don Cherry rattled off a pile of highlights where players have been hurt in a race for the puck on an icing call on the November 15th edition of Coach's Corner. Are the injuries worth possession of the puck? Does having a top-six defenceman or starting forward on the IR satisfy you if your team gets offensive zone possession?

Look, I have never heard any NHL player come back from the Olympics or World Championships and say, "Geez, that no-touch icing rule is absolutely crap". Yet somehow the NHL and the general managers insist on keeping touch-up icing, even though the debate comes up every year at the managers' meeting.


Well, GMs routinely use this rationalization: slowing down the game, and removing an exciting and entertaining part of the game.

Something in that reasoning smells of steaming cow manure. Ask the Boston Bruins if touch-up icing is "exciting and entertaining" after watching Patrice Bergeron get demolished by Philadelphia's Randy Jones last season. Ask the Minnesota Wild if touch-up icing "slows down the game" when you have to watch defenceman Kurtis Foster carted off the ice on a stretcher.

First of all, the "slowing down the game" reason is utter garbage. How many times is an icing waved off in the NHL in a single game? My guess is, on average, less than once per game. So how does adding the no-touch rule slow it down more than regular touch-up icings do? If someone can explain this to me, you probably deserve the Nobel Piece Prize in mathematics.

If something happens less than 10% of the time, I'd consider it an anomaly. Thus, beating a touch-up icing call for a forward would be something that rarely happens, and I'd consider it an anomaly. If injuries on touch-up icings happen less than 10% of the time as well, it would also be an anomaly. But when those two anomalies occur at the same time, bad things along the end-boards normally happen.

How many players have been hurt by crashing into the end-boards in the last two decades? There have been more than a handful. Some of these players that have been hurt include Calgary's Al MacInnis dislocating his hip, Dallas' Mark Tinordi breaking his femur, Edmonton's Marty Reasoner damaging his knee and foot, San Jose's Marco Sturm dislocating his ankle and breaking his leg, Florida's Mike Wilson dislocating his shoulder and breaking his arm, Washington's Pat Peake breaking his heel in 12 places and ending his career, and Kurtis Foster breaking his femur. Foster still hasn't returned to the ice.

"If this isn't a perfect reason to cut it out and just go to regular icing, I don't know what it is," former Minnesota Wild defenseman Sean Hill said to Michael Russo of the Star-Tribune (if it asks to print the story, just cancel!). "Nothing good comes of it, in my view. I haven't heard any [players] who think it's a great part of the game."

"Two guys going full-speed, racing for the puck, so much of that can go wrong," Hill continued. "Rarely does it change the outcome of a game if somebody beats out an icing, but it can change the outcome of somebody's life."

And that's exactly the point: why would anyone risk their life and livelihood to race for a loose puck just to move it 180 feet? Rarely do forwards who win a race create a scoring chance or setup the offensive system after getting possession of the puck. All of them are tired from sprinting 150-feet down the ice, and all of them head to the bench after the sprint because they're bagged. It happens again and again and again.

"We shouldn't have those kinds of car wrecks," Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said after the Sharks-Wild game where Foster was hurt. "For all the times you might have somebody beat a guy to a puck on an icing, it doesn't ever offset a situation where two guys collide and somebody gets hurt."

"I favour the no-touch icing rule, as do a majority of our players," NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said to Pierre Lebrun of the Globe & Mail. "This position is grounded in serious safety concerns about precisely the type of high speed collision that led to the unfortunate injury to Kurtis Foster. The NHLPA has advocated for the adoption of the no-touch icing rule for many years. We intend to raise the issue again via the competition committee at the end of the season."

Mr. Kelly's remarks were made on March 25, 2008 - the end of the 2007-08 season. Unfortunately, we're now into the 2008-09 season, and still no changes have been made. And some long-time defenders of touch-up icing are changing their stances after seeing some marquee players being seriously injured for long periods of time.

"I was not in favour of making a change. How do I feel today after Kurtis' injury? I feel that it's time to look at it," Risebrough told The Canadian Press. "Not because I feel any different about the dynamic of what the icing does. But clearly there's a tactic now where there's more deliberate contact being made.

"Before, it was a race to the puck, both guys were reaching and trying to stretch with their sticks to try and touch the puck. The type of contact that's going on now, I think you have to look at it."

It's not like this rule hasn't been tried in North American hockey. The AHL tested it out during the 2004-05 season when the NHL was locked out. While NHL GMs weren't happy with the flow, AHL President David Andrews had this comment: "I would say it was a mixed reaction among our coaches and our people."

With the NHL and NHLPA at loggerheads on this issue, perhaps it's time to look at a third approach: the hybrid proposal.

Bob McKenzie of TSN explains how the USHL, a development league in the United States similar to junior hockey in Canada, has adopted a modified no-touch icing rule:

"On any potential icing, the linesman has to make a decision by the time the first player or players are crossing an imaginary line that runs across the rink and right through the end-zone faceoff dots and hash marks, or around 25 feet from the end boards.

"If the defending player is the first to hit the dots or hash marks, the linesman immediately blows the whistle for automatic no-touch icing. The player does not have to even retrieve the puck.

"If the defending player and the attacking player are in a dead heat or a little too close to call, the linesman blows the whistle for icing. The two players on a collision course can immediately let up for the automatic icing.

"If, however, the attacking player has any degree of advantage on the defending player, the linesman doesn't blow the whistle and allows the puck chase and potential battle to continue. Linesmen are encouraged to use good judgment. In other words, if a defender is at the dot but totally flat-footed and the attacker is in full stride ready to blow by him, the defender shouldn't necessarily get the benefit of the doubt. Play on."

With Risebrough's view on how players are now looking for the hit rather than the puck, this option would essentially solve both the NHLPA's concerns and the NHL GMs' concerns. Is it viable? It all depends if the NHL is willing to consider it.

All I know is that there are too many players who are injured on a meaningless play. As a defenceman in a beer league, I find myself routinely bracing for a hit rather than picking up the puck behind the goal line. And there are the occasional speedy forwards who blow by me with a head of steam and get to the puck first, but I have yet to bear down and try to put that player through the end-boards with a thundering bodycheck. My concern is the puck, and preventing it from being fished out of the back of my net.

So I guess I'm not an NHL defenceman by NHL standards. If I can prevent a serious injury, though, I'll certainly do it. Why NHL GMs can't figure out that their players are their biggest assets is beyond me. It seems very elementary, and it should be something that the NHLPA pursues like they are going for a touch-up icing call.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Kirsten said...

I'm all in favor of this rule change. There is no reason not to, yet another example of why the NHL can be really dumb. Also, Don Cherry is awesome.

Anonymous said...

no touch icing is the way to go. get into the 21st century already NHL!