As officials, we often find ourselves caught between how we’re expected by USA Hockey (USAH) to enforce the rules, how everyone else thinks we should enforce the rules, and how players are taught the rules. It’s a tight fit, to be sure, as officials are charged with a weighty responsibility. Our default always is the book we’re handed to enforce, and it’s those codified rules that need to be taught to players and parents to increase safety and sportsmanship.
What follows is a brief glimpse into the minds of USAH administrators and officials. The hope is you come away with a better understanding of how officials watch the game. In addition to rule changes, declarations, clarifications, and directives from USAH, officials spend scores of hours each year – before, during and after the season – on video, seminars, group discussions and forums studying situations and rule application.
This fall, USAH released its Declaration of Player Safety, Fair Play and Respect. You can watch a video on YouTube discussing this initiative in detail. https://youtu.be/MXidYlZRX3A
There are no rule changes regarding body checking. Instead, it’s a shift in the standard of enforcement, attempting to return to body checking as a method of separating a player from the puck. Coaches and officials are being instructed that hits intended to intimidate or punish an opponent will be penalized. The puck must be the primary focus of the check, and sticks need to be no higher than the knees. “Finishing your check” no longer is tolerated. If the player no longer is in possession and control of the puck, that player is no longer eligible to be legally checked. Hands and/or stick elevated, blind-side checks, late hits, checking a player already physically engaged with an opponent, and needless checks all have been added to the list of unacceptable physical play, which already included checking from behind, boarding, charging and head contact. USAH has made a clear statement about what is and isn’t legal contact.
According to USAH rules, the definition of a legal body check is, “one in which a player checks an opponent who is in possession of the puck, by using his hip or body from the front, diagonally from the front or straight from the side. Legitimate body checking must be done for the purpose of separating the opponent from the puck, only with the trunk of the body (hips and shoulders) and must be above the opponent’s knees and at or below the shoulders.”
This new standard of enforcement will pose challenges for officials and coaches, and it’s incumbent on everyone to help create a safe environment for players to enjoy the game. Coaches teaching proper checking techniques and mechanics, and officials penalizing illegal body checks will help guide players in the right direction. The goal of the enforcement standard is to create an environment that enhances player skill development by reducing intimidating infractions designed to punish the opponent. This standard is designed to improve the proper skill of legal body checking or contact at all levels of play and will not remove the physical component from the game. A hard body check to gain a competitive advantage over the opponent should not be penalized as long as it is performed within the rules.
Another point of emphasis this season is sportsmanlike and respectful behavior, specifically with regard to players banging on the boards after a check. USAH’s directive to officials and coaches is simple: If any player or coach bangs on the boards in response to a body check, whether it’s penalized or not, that team will be given a warning. Any further violation of this policy by the same team should be penalized by assessing a bench minor to the team. If a bench minor penalty for a violation of this policy currently is being served and the same team commits another violation of this rule, that team’s head coach shall be assessed a game misconduct.
Intentional offsides calls still seem to be a point of confusion for players and coaches. How officials deem an offside infraction to be intentional can be found in the intent of the USAH rule: Players are meant to develop the skills required to control the puck, which means simply dumping the puck back into the attacking zone without regard for making an onside play should be deemed intentional. In other words, officials are looking at a few factors.
Does the player with the puck demonstrate control and an attempt to make a good hockey play?
Is the player making a legitimate attempt to keep the puck in the attacking zone on a close play at the blue line, or could the player be reasonably expected to know the puck had cleared the attacking zone?
Did the play resulting in the puck entering the attacking zone ever have the opportunity to be a legal hockey play?
These are just a few of the factors officials are considering when making decisions in fractions of a second, and the interpretation of what is and isn’t intentional is left to the officials’ discretion.
The same skill-development philosophy was the primary factor in the USAH decision to make icing the puck illegal at any time in 14U and younger age groups. The bottom line is for those specified age groups, icing always will be called, regardless of on-ice strength. Unlike higher-level leagues, there is no additional penalty in USAH for icing the puck while shorthanded, and teams may change players. However, the intent of the rule change is to encourage coaches to teach - and players to learn - the appropriate skills to prevent the need to repeatedly ice the puck when killing a penalty.
Nick Schirripa is a USA Hockey officiating instructor and supervisor with 25 years as an official for USAH, NCAA, ACHA and MHSAA and was hired as a linesman in the professional Federal Prospects Hockey League for the 2019-20 season.