Friday, 9 October 2009

When The Icing Is Real

Tonight is a night where I don't expect to be around much. There has been some stuff that has been planned in the Real-Life™ to help celebrate my birthday. That happened on Monday, but I felt it wasn't that important to dwell on. Instead, I wrote about hockey. But tonight, a few friends and I are heading out for some party fun because everyone likes to celebrate, and a birthday is a good reason to celebrate. Since there will be cake, the icing will be real. Who doesn't love that icing?

On the other hand, we also had our first major snowfall of the season today. There has to be an inch of snow on the ground, and we'll probably get a little more before everything is said and done. Because of this lovely meteorological phenomenon, the streets will probably be like skating rinks due to the snow melting on impact followed by a layer a snow on top. Black ice, covered ice, and ice on roads in general is hazardous, and it makes driving dangerous. Honestly, I know of no one who loves that kind of icing.

The second type of icing got me thinking about icing in hockey. Is it really necessary to have two players racing for a puck that results in a dangerous hit and/or a result of moving the puck 200-feet away? I'm not talking about eliminating icing altogether because I think teams should be punished when they give up, and that's essentially what icing is: we need a line change, we can't get the puck past the opposition, so we'll launch it down the ice and give up possession in order to get our tired players off the ice. Not on my watch, kids.

Why is there touch icing? Purists proclaim that "it adds entertainment value" to a game when two players engage in a "win-or-die" race for the puck, and that the result is usually more exciting than a faceoff 200-feet away. But I ask these purists "at what cost". The reason I ask this question is that there are less coaches today who send a man in hard to win the race for the puck today compared to 20 years ago. More and more goaltenders are allowing icing to be called, and refusing to play the puck if there's a chance at icing. It's just good strategy in both examples, and that means there is a reduction in the number of races down the ice on an iced puck, yet the NHL's entertainment value is on the rise.

The races that do occasionally happen, however, normally end in one of two ways: a monsterous bodycheck into the endboards with no icing called, or icing is called and a check is thrown. In both cases, there is an increased likelihood of an injury due to two factors: speed and momentum.

Cars that are traveling at high speeds on icy streets need time to stop. Those that can't stop in time are normally found in a crumpled heap. If you had a Ferrari, would you race down the icy street simply to see if you could beat the Ford Pinto if it meant destroying your million-dollar investment? At best, you'd win, and the thrill would be over in mere seconds. No one would remember you racing the Pinto. And if you lost the race, only the Pinto driver would remember it. But if you crashed and destroyed your Ferrari, everyone would be talking about it. It would be on the six o'clock news.

And that's essentially what icing is. Only replace " Ford Pinto" with "third-line forward", "Ferrari" with "star defenceman". That's what the race for an icing call in hockey is. It's a non-vital part of the game that results in an increased number of career-threatening injuries when there is a race for the puck. If you're not willing to put your Ferrari on the line, why would you risk losing one of your top defencemen? It makes no sense whatsoever. And if you're the third-line forward, would you put your career in jeopardy by slamming into the endboards at full-speed?

The NHL needs to seriously consider no-touch icing. The owners' investments in their players demand its consideration. The safety and security of the NHLPA's members should be a top priority for the players' union. Yet neither seems all that interested in protecting the most vital aspect of keeping fans in the arena: star power. If a star player is injured, less "turnstile fans" will come out to see the team. Turnstile fans - those people who come to see the big-name players only - are a large portion of the fanbase that teams needs to continue to turn profits. If Alex Ovechkin, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Sidney Crosby, or Nicklas Lidstrom are hurt, the turnstile fans may scoff at seeing those teams play the hometown team.

You can claim that I'm making a stretch in linking major injuries to profits, but would there be any reason to see the Atlanta Thrashers this season if it weren't for Ilya Kovalchuk? If Kovalchuk is hurt, and the Thrashers are traveling to your city next, would you be less inclined to see the game if you had to buy tickets? Your answer would most likely be "yes".

While it's rare that a superstar makes a race for the puck nowadays, the fact that injuries to the foot soldiers happen is irrefutable. And, for the most part, it is those foot soldiers who do the dirty work that allows teams to reach the next level. Without them, the superstars would be seriously limited in their capacities.

So I ask: would it be smarter for the NHL to move to no-touch icing in order to prevent injuries, thereby keeping their teams' chances of being more successful higher? Or do you enjoy the once-per-game race for the puck that never makes a highlight unless someone gets hurt? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


mtjaws said...

When watching, I do enjoy the chase to the touch up the puck for icing. But I totally see the other side where it could really lead to more injuries than no-touch icing. The only place I see it without touching is in the Olympics. If the NHL adopts it, it'll be weird for a bit, but we'll get used to it.

As for the ticket issue, if I had tix to a Caps or Thrashers road game, and their stars were out, I'd be mad. Besides the schedule, I pick what games to go to based on the opponent and seeing a top star player. My very first game was to see Gretzky in Miami, on a school night, with a 2 hour drive to get there. Yes it was worth it, but not having him or another star play would hurt the league, especially if it because of an unneeded sprint to get the puck.

Cory D said...

I think the best way is a system that is in use in the USHL and SPHL called "hybrid icing." From the SPHL website: "Under the hybrid icing rule, standard conditions must be present such as the teams must be equal strength at the time the puck is shot and the puck must have been shot from a player’s defensive side of the center red line and must completely cross the goal line without the defending team having an opportunity to play the puck. The goaltender must stay within his crease and not make an attempt or fake an attempt to play the puck during an icing.

Icing shall be considered complete once the front linesman determines who would have touched the puck first. This decision shall be made by the end-zone face off dot (an imaginary line across the ice connecting through the end-zone dots.) The only question to be asked in any icing situation is who would have reached the puck first. Once determined, the icing shall be waived or completed (whistle blown). The linesmen will not blow the whistle until a defending player reaches the face off dot. If it’s a tie or the linesmen is not clearly able to determine who would have of touched the puck first, icing shall be called (the tie will go to the defenseman)." This allows you to still have the excitement of a puck chase with the ability to stop it in order to protect players

Teebz said...

Great comments!

MT: excellent points about going to see Gretzky. He's a draw, and if he's not playing, some turnstile fans may not show up.

Cory: I've seen this system in action. It's not perfect, but it does work well, especially in protecting players. The NHL would probably want the AHL to test it out, but I think the hybrid method might be the best way to offer entertainment AND protect players.