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Coaches & Officials Have Concerns But See Positives in New USA Hockey Rules

By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com

Duluth News Tribune Photo

Every four years USA Hockey makes changes to its playing rules. There usually are a number of changes – this year there are nearly 90 – many of which go virtually unnoticed while others are emphasized in hopes of making an immediate positive impact on the sport.

These “points of emphasis,” as they are described, usually are met with at least a fair amount of skepticism, and this year is no different

In 2017 eyebrows were raised around the youth hockey world when USA Hockey announced that teams on the penalty kill would no longer be allowed to ice the puck at the 14U age level and below. Delayed and “tag-up” offsides also were eliminated at 12U and below.

There was some minor pushback following that announcement – which is normal when any type of change is proposed – but the players, coaches and officials adapted quickly, and the sport moved on.

“The icing on the penalty kill didn’t have much impact at the youngest levels, because it’s pretty hard for most kids to shoot the puck all the way down the ice anyway,” said Steven Sandler, a bantam (14U) coach for the Navy Youth Hockey Association in Maryland who also has coached teams in younger age groups. “When it came to offsides, that probably was more difficult to teach. Some of the players just didn’t get it and took the puck right back into the zone almost every time. As the season went on it almost became part of the strategy at times. Essentially, if the puck came out past the blue line it was just safer to take it in and get the stop. At least we had a fifty-fifty chance of winning the puck back on the faceoff dot instead of taking a step back and possibly turning it over and giving the other team a great chance going the other direction.”

The naysayers often are silenced quickly once they see new rules in action, but believe it or not, it’s that time once again, and a fair number of concerns have been raised by coaches, parents and referees as the Sept. 1 implementation date for USA Hockey’s 2021-25 rule book rapidly approaches. As the new season draws near, the penalty-kill icing and delayed offsides issues have reared their heads yet again.

Those rules will be in effect this year for all age groups, but not for the high school, junior and adult classifications. In addition, USA Hockey has clarified its rules regarding body contact – now called “competitive contact” for the younger youth age groups and girls – as well as for body checking for boys over the age of 14. As with most rules regarding body contact, the changes are designed to make the sport safer.

“The goal is to enhance player skill development by eliminating intimidating infractions designed to punish the opponent,” USA Hockey said in its “Points of Emphasis” document. “Proper enforcement of this standard will improve the proper skill of legal body checking or legal competitive contact at all levels of play.”

These are the major on-ice rules changes that will have the most impact on how the game is played for the next four years. Many of the rule changes were added to reflect USA Hockey’s Declaration of Fair Play and Respect, which was issued in 2019 and has been added to the rule book. Changes also were made to clarify the language and intent of certain rules.

“The goal of USA Hockey is to promote a safe and positive playing environment for all participants while continuing to focus on skill development and enjoyment of the sport,” the “Points of Emphasis” document continued. “All officials, coaches, players, parents, spectators and volunteers are encouraged to observe these ‘Points of Emphasis’ when participating in the sport of ice hockey.”

In addition to eliminating the icing exception for teams killing penalties and the delayed offside – as well as clarifying its body-contact rules and language – USA Hockey continued to emphasize that taunting, abusive behavior toward officials and racial or derogatory slurs aimed at players, coaches or officials would not be tolerated. The governing body encourages its officials to enforce all the rules intended to create a less-combative environment to the letter of the law. Any language that is considered abusive or hateful is to be penalized with a match penalty, which comes with an automatic suspension attached.

“Abuse of officials is a continuing problem at all levels of play, and in all youth sports, and as a result the retention of officials has become a significant issue that affects the quality and number of available officials,” the document continued. “USA Hockey is committed to taking a leadership role in this area and has in place a Zero Tolerance Policy towards unsportsmanlike behavior. Officials are required to strictly enforce all actions that are deemed to be abusive in nature in an effort to change the culture of what is deemed to be acceptable behavior when it comes to respect for officials.”

While USA Hockey is going out of its way to improve the sport’s culture and provide a less-threatening environment for its officials, the new body-contact rules have raised concerns among coaches and officials because of their subjective nature. The intent of the rules is to eliminate any body contact directed toward players who do not have “control” of the puck as well as body contact in which the player making the hit doesn’t first attempt to play the puck.

USA Hockey has tried to help its officials by clarifying the difference between being the last player to touch the puck, possessing the puck and controlling the puck. Compare a football player possessing the ball and making a “football move” to a hockey player who has control of the puck. Only a player controlling the puck is eligible to be checked.

“The primary focus of the check shall be to gain possession of the puck and officials should strictly penalize any illegal actions such as boarding, charging, cross checking and a late body check to a player who is no longer in control of the puck,” according to the “Points of Emphasis” document. “The responsibility is on the player delivering the check to avoid forceful contact (minimize impact) to a vulnerable or defenseless player who is no longer in control of the puck. Proper body checking technique starts with stick on puck, therefore the stick blade of the player delivering the check must be below the knees.”

In the past it was deemed acceptable for a player to be hit within a reasonable amount of time of releasing the puck. Also, any player in control of the puck was fair game to be hit as long as the check didn’t target the head or violate other rules such as interference, elbowing, cross-checking, boarding, charging or tripping. If a player carrying the puck was not looking up or was unaware of his surroundings and got steamrolled, that was considered part of the game.

No more.

Now the onus is on the officials to determine what constitutes “an attempt to play the puck” while keeping a watchful eye on all other aspects of the game in what is one of the world’s fastest sports. USA Hockey also has taken away the option for officials to call only a major penalty for a dangerous hit that has the potential of causing injury.

In the past, a player who threw a big hit in which the opponent was shaken up or might have been injured could have been assessed just a five-minute penalty. If the hit clearly caused an injury, it was to be penalized with a major penalty and a game misconduct. 

USA hockey has introduced the term “reckless endangerment” to the rule book this year, and body contact that “recklessly endangers” another player and has the potential to cause an injury is to be penalized with a major and a game misconduct. There are no more stand-alone majors.

“With the speed of the game, we have to figure out on the fly was that hit reckless endangerment, was it a late-enough hit to be interference and was the player trying to play the puck,” USA Hockey-certified official Brent Kendall said. “I just fear that less-experienced officials will jump to hand out the five and a game quicker than some of the more-experienced officials might.”

Inconsistencies in terms of what hits are deemed to be illegal – as well as the appropriate penalties for the penalized checks – are inevitable any time you have new rules being interpreted by officials from varying backgrounds and with different levels of experience. 

Each of the new rules is intended to be enforced by the letter of the law starting Sept. 1, and there are concerns among coaches about the potential inconsistent applications of the body-contact rules based on their subjectivity, the speed of the game and the adaptation period for everyone involved.

“Game officials will definitely have a larger responsibility when observing a body check,” said Jon Skarlis, coach of the 18U South Shore Kings in Massachusetts. “I can see why this rule has changed regarding player safety, and that’s great; we never want to see someone severely injured on a play. I just think there could be some inconsistencies within this rule. It will all depend on the officials that night and how they want to police the game. At the end of the day, hockey is a physical sport, which is something that makes our game unique.”

As the general manager, director of hockey operations and an 18U coach for the Tomorrow’s Ice youth hockey program in Maryland, Mike Shramek is exposed to many games every year at all age levels. He feels that in any sport there is an adjustment period for players and coaches when it comes to how a game will be officiated, especially when there are rules changes. In his eyes, hockey is no different.

“It’s kind of like the strike zone in baseball, especially early in the season,” Shramek said. “You’re probably going to have to figure out how it’s going to be called in every single game. We’ve been playing under the current rules for four years now and have settled into a certain standard of how we expect games to be called. Now there have been changes again – this time to a pretty significant degree – and I’m sure we’ll eventually settle in again.”

To be fair, there are concerns among officials, too, as to how well the rules changes are being communicated to the coaches by the individual clubs and USA Hockey affiliate districts.

“At our officials’ symposium they showed us all kinds of videos that were great in helping us visualize and understand what USA Hockey was trying to accomplish with the changes,” Kendall said. “It’s really beneficial to see exactly what they want removed from the game and how they want certain situations that come up called. I don’t know how this information is being communicated to the coaches, but I know that some clubs are much better than others at passing this type of information along. I fear that early in the season we will have a lot of coaches who haven’t been brought up to speed on all the changes and that we might have to deal with guys going off on us and telling us we don’t know the rules when we are just doing what we have been told to do.”

As with anything, the communication between affiliates and clubs – then between clubs and coaches – can vary considerably from one area and organization to the next. USA Hockey has done an excellent job of providing resources for anyone involved youth hockey to learn about and understand not only the changes, but also the spirit behind them. Everything you need to know about the rules for 2021-25 can be found at this link on the USA Hockey website. Most USA Hockey district affiliates have posted similar information as well.

Still, many coaches may not be aware that rules changes were made at all, much less where to find them, so USA Hockey is very much dependent on its affiliates and member organizations to get the word out.

“The flow of information and communication at my club has been great,” said Sandler, who is familiar with many organizations in his area. “They have kept us updated and given us all the information we need as coaches. I’ve been blown away honestly. I’m sure that many other clubs are on top of it, too, but there definitely some that aren’t very good with their communication.”

Concerns about rules changes aren’t limited to just body contact and body checking. As part of its efforts to make youth hockey safer, USA Hockey also has lowered the number of penalties required in a single game for a player to receive a game misconduct from five to four. And the number of team penalties required in a single game to earn the coach a game misconduct has been reduced from 15 to 12.

This seems like a common-sense rule to most people. Any time you discourage players from committing unnecessary fouls during a game it is assumed you are creating a safer environment for the participants. In this case, however, maybe it’s not necessary at the youngest levels of hockey.

“Some of my younger coaches are worried about how this might affect their personnel decisions,” Shramek said. “Sometimes when squirts are playing and really trying hard you get squirt penalties. Things happen that are penalized, but it’s just part of the game at that age level. There is no intent. If a player picks up his third penalty early in a game, a coach might decide it’s better for the kid and the team to sit that player most or all of the second and third periods to avoid picking up another one and having to miss the rest of that game and the next one. That fourth penalty might not be at all egregious. The player might just be staying up with the play and pick up an accidental tripping or hooking penalty.

“That could really have an impact on how coaches make personnel decisions and limit playing time, which ultimately can hurt the kids. In basketball, when you foul out you still get to play the next game.”

In youth hockey, a one-game suspension accompanies any game misconduct, so that is why players who commit four penalties in a game would have to sit out the next contest under the updated rules.

Coaches and officials didn’t only express concerns about the body checking guidelines and interpretations of rules designed to promote safety. They also fear that some teams won’t adapt to the penalty-killing restrictions and will continually ice the puck, resulting in many more stoppages and games that last much longer than usual. That would be in addition to the more-frequent whistles that are almost guaranteed to result from the elimination of the delayed offside.

“The rinks carve out blocks of time for these games and they don’t wait,” Kendall said. “When that door opens and the Zamboni driver is ready to go, the game is over. I think that some of these games will go over the allotted time block. Then you’ve got all these parents paying that much money and the games aren’t being finished. That could turn into a big issue.”

Sandler said that while there were noticeably more whistles because of the icing and offsides rules changes at the younger age levels, the biggest difference he saw was that there was less flow and more choppiness to the games.

Skarlis chose to search for the potential positives that could result from the changes. 

“The new rule of no icing the puck on the PK is very interesting,” he said. “Coaches must adapt whether we want to or not; the game is evolving. For me, I think learning to make plays in tight areas will be paramount to adjust to the new PK rule. No icing will decrease your decision-making time, and we will have to create new ways to kill off a penalty. Puck management and puck support will be essential this season.”

In addition to eliminating the exception allowing for icing during the penalty kill, USA Hockey also mandated that the ensuing faceoff after a penalty is committed would take place in the offending team’s defensive zone. 

“They don’t think the penalized team should gain any advantage for taking a penalty,” Kendall said. “Your player goes off the ice for two minutes, you can’t ice the puck and the faceoff is in your end.”

A few years ago, when icing and offsides rules were installed at the youngest levels of hockey, some of us wondered if this might be the direction the sport would be heading at all levels in the future. Most of that talk was brushed aside, but now with the same changes being made for the oldest divisions of youth hockey, you can bank on them surfacing again.

“The other night while I was watching the Women’s World Championship I thought to myself that the international game at all the world championships, junior leagues like the USHL, the colleges, the NHL – all the places young players want to be – play by a certain set of rules, and we’re kind of saying that it’s not a big deal if we continue to change the rules for ages 15 plus,” Shramek said. 

Whether it’s a big deal or not – and the overall direction of hockey in the United States going forward – remains to be seen, but while the rules changes discussed in this article may be the most noticeable when you head to your local rinks this season, they are not the only changes being implemented.

Here is a rundown of some of the other more important changes:

  • A stoppage of play will now be required at all levels when a helmet is removed.
  • It is now recommended that players wear a neck-laceration protector that covers as much of the neck area as possible. 
  • For periods 12-minutes or less, the recommended minor-penalty length is 1 minute. The recommended minor-penalty time is 1:30 for periods longer than 12 minutes and 2:00 for periods 17 minutes in length or greater. Local affiliates can choose not to follow these recommendations. Also, optional pro-rated times for major, misconduct and match penalties were established. 
  • Coaches who receive a second game misconduct for abuse of officials in the same season will be automatically suspended for three games. Coaches who receive a third game misconduct for abuse of officials in the same season will be suspended until a hearing is conducted.
  • The unsportsmanlike conduct bench minor penalty for banging the boards with a stick or other object was clarified to be applied specifically when doing so to celebrate a legal or illegal body check.
  • A minimum penalty of a major plus game misconduct was established for slew footing.
  • An attackszone faceoff will take place any time an attacking team attempts a shot on goal and the puck goes out of play after hitting a post, the boards or the glass
  • Any goaltender who body checks an opponent shall be assessed a minor penalty for unnecessary roughness.
  • Officials are mandated to strictly enforce contact after the whistle, especially in scrum situations, and to assess additional penalties for aggressors in these situations.

 

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