Friday, July 11, 2014

Commentary: Impact of new rules?

Like a lot of sports followers worldwide, I've been enjoying soccer's World Cup over the last month. The artistry, the high drama, the back-and-forth play, it's all been great. But there's one thing that's notable about soccer -- it never changes. Tactics might change, and a few tweaks might be thrown in here or there (like the yellow/red card system instead of verbal warnings), but change comes slowly.

And when it does come, it's resisted -- like, for example, the clock. It never stops and to make up for stoppages, a seemingly-arbitrary amount of "additional time" is thrown onto the end of each half. It's a system that worked well 100 years ago when stadium clock technology was primitive at best. While it seems archaic today, attempts to change it have been met not just with resistance, but a sense that a visible clock that counts down to zero and can stop for special events so everybody knows how much time is left strikes at the very fabric of the game. Major League Soccer used the "countdown clock" at its inception (the NCAA has used it for years), but got rid of it after massive complaints by fans. The sundial technology "is soccer" and cannot be changed. Ever.

It's a nuance that I've come to appreciate in soccer.

But it's been interesting to contrast that with hockey. It's a game that has constantly evolved. I happened to stumble upon a game program from 1941 the other day, and the description of the offside rule was rather interesting, since teams could not pass the puck forward across their own bluelines. A couple years later, the center red line was introduced to allow forward passing across the defensive blueline -- as long as it didn't cross two lines. That single rule change was credited with speeding up the game and creating modern hockey. By the mid-2000s, the red line that once sped up the game was now seen as slowing it down, and as a result, it had to be taken out, and now a team can pass the puck all the way from behind its net to its offensive blueline without a whistle.

That's a fundamental rule that strikes at the way the game is played. But none of us can imagine hockey where teams have to carry the puck out of their own zones by rule.

But that's hockey -- it's a game that has evolved with the times. It's gone from seven players to six early in the 20th century, allowed forward passing across the blueline, and then the blue and red lines, helmets went from a sign of weakness to being mandatory in a decade, sticks became curved, regular-season overtime existed, then went away, then came back, then was tweaked, no-touch icing popped into the international game, the shootout was introduced to eliminate ties, the trapezoid to leash the goaltender behind the net ... 

Needless to say, it's a game where the rules continually change, but the essence of the sport really doesn't change much. And some -- like the trapezoid rule -- have been created to adapt to changes in the sport to keep its essence there, that defensemen go to the corners for pucks, not goalies, allowing the forecheckers to actually be able to create offense.

That's why the recent rules changes in professional hockey have been so eye-popping -- because they're not major tweaks, but they're some of the more interesting changes we've seen since the shootout gradually came into vogue in the minor pro ranks in the mid-1980s (and into the NHL in 2005). 

Some have been great -- not allowing players to change after icing creates a true penalty for icing the puck, and can turn a game or even a playoff series. Some haven't been -- for example, the minor penalty for shooting a puck out of play from the defensive zone is a punishment that far outweighs the crime (the USHL rule that treats it like icing -- where the offending team cannot change players -- is a far better solution and one I wish the NHL and other pro leagues would adopt). A few of the not-so-great ideas -- some of us remember the IHL's very brief experiment with playing a game in four quarters at an Ice exhibition game a decade and a half ago -- have gone by the wayside.

Anyway, a couple of years ago, while sitting in my rinkside perch at an Ice game, I noticed the linesemen were blowing icing calls dead not when the puck was touched (as in the traditional pro game) or when it crossed the goal line (as in the international & college game), but when the first defensive player passed the faceoff dots. Icing was waived if an offensive player beat him there. I thought "this is great. It lessens the chance of an injury, but it still allows an offensive player who hustles a chance to negate an icing." This year, after a bit of an adjustment period, "hybrid icing" became a reality in the NHL, and as a result, Don Cherry -- who spent years begging for no-touch icing -- had to find some new material for Coach's Corner.

That brings us to what the AHL announced Thursday -- three pretty significant rules changes. Why is this important? The AHL is often used as an incubator for other leagues -- successful changes in the AHL tend to get spread throughout hockey. Unsuccessful ones -- like the 2-foot bluelines -- go away quietly. The USHL has been the same as an incubator.

Two were fairly minor and procedural -- one calls for an automatic game misconduct after two fighting majors, simply codifying the evolution of hockey that is seeing fighting become less and less a part of the game. Another implements the international rule on helmets -- if one comes off, a player has to either put it back on or leave the ice immediately. Just like playing with a broken stick, participating in the play without a helmet becomes an automatic minor penalty. I wouldn't be shocked to see those two rules swiftly adopted in other leagues.

The one really interesting one is the changes to overtime. Next year, AHL overtimes will be seven minutes long -- as opposed to five. The rink will be dry-scraped before OT, leading to a brief intermission, and the teams will switch ends (thereby ensuring the "long change" with teams' defensive zones farthest from the bench, a change that was implemented in the USHL last year and was adopted throughout the pro ranks this year, and is intended to increase scoring). The OT will start the way overtimes across hockey have been played for a number of years -- 4-on-4. But at the first whistle inside 4:00 on the clock, it will go to a 3-on-3 period.

It's all designed to avoid the shootout, which was seen as the height of excitement in the 1980s, but after their adoption by the NHL in 2005, the one-on-one competitions quickly became less unique. They also annoyed hockey fans who didn't want to see 65 minutes of hockey and key standings points decided by a skills competition. A handful of people have proposed the 3-on-3, but like watching hybrid icing up close and personal, we've seen the 3-on-3. And it works.

Last year, the USHL experimented with 3-on-3 overtime during the preseason -- every preseason game ended with the extra session, whether tied or not. Nine preseason games were played in Indy. Only one made it through the five-minute period still tied. With only six skaters on the ice, there was plenty of room and the action was end-to-end. After one of the games, I talked to the referee, who told me that two referees would be almost critical for a 3-on-3 OT because of the energy that had to be exerted skating end-to-end to keep up with the play.

Yes, it will annoy hockey purists (and I consider myself one) who demand the game be played 5-on-5 period (unless, of course, there are penalties. 3v3 does happen in regulation games, although very rarely). But, across all levels of the sport -- save maybe U.S. college hockey -- we've come to the conclusion that hockey fans shouldn't leave a game and not see a winner. But at the same time, we'd like to see a winner (and the resultant standings point) decided by guys playing hockey -- with face-offs and offensive and defensive players out there, not just a skills competition. Anything that lessens the impact of the shootout is a good one, and the 3v3 compromise does that.

My suggestion would be to go one further and make overtimes 10 minutes again -- and make the switch to 3v3 after the five-minute mark. For many years, overtimes were 10 minutes long throughout hockey -- NHL teams played a 10-minute, non-sudden death OT prior to WWII, but dropped it due to wartime travel restrictions and didn't revive any overtime for 40 years. Minor pro leagues continued to play 10-minute OT until the early 1980s, and the WHA used a 10-minute OT during its seven-year run. The NHL brought back regular season OT, but only a five-minute period, in 1982, and five minutes became the standard OT length when everyone else began to follow the NHL's lead (just like shootouts throughout most of minor pro and junior hockey went from five rounds to three after the NHL introduced the three-round shootout in 2005 -- the ECHL being a significant exception. It still uses a five-round shootout). So, there's precedent for a 10-minute overtime, and it's a much easier round number to work with than seven minutes. And, the extra three minutes increases that much more the likelihood of seeing an overtime goal.

If we resisted minor tweaks to improve the game as much as our friends in other sports do, we'd have a shoot-it-in, shoot-it-out game played with 6 skaters and a goalie, players in largely fixed positions, no forward passing allowed anywhere on the ice, no icing, and a much less exciting game. That hockey continues to evolve -- making the game more exciting while still maintaining the essence of the sport -- is a good thing. Like hybrid icing a few years back, these new rules changes in the AHL are ones we'll likely see throughout hockey very soon. And that's another positive evolution for the sport.

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