Thursday, March 13, 2008

WCHA: Control what's yours to control

So we have yet another officiating incident in the WCHA. This time, it’s referee Jon Campion being reprimanded by Commissioner Bruce McLeod for grabbing Minnesota-Duluth goalie Alex Stalock from behind. It happened during an altercation last weekend in a game between the Bulldogs and the Gophers. For the second time this season, a league referee has been reprimanded for inappropriately grabbing a UMD player during a game.

A trend I find disconcerting in the WCHA is officials losing control of games and, as a result, players and coaches losing respect for the officials. Perhaps I’m suffering from selective memory, but it seems that there are more and more incidents in which officials literally fight to maintain control of players while the players mostly ignore the officials’ efforts to restrain them.

Interestingly enough, the WCHA didn’t issue any public reprimands following UND’s Feb. 2 game at Minnesota. In that game, an official ripped the helmet off Sioux player Brad Malone and caused him to fall while being pushed into the penalty box. At the time I didn’t feel too badly for Malone because he wasn’t doing what the official told him to do. But having his helmet violently ripped off his head probably didn’t do much to improve Malone’s mood at the time.

At the end of the same game, another fight erupted between the Gophers and Sioux. When an official broke up a fight between UND’s T.J. Oshie and Minnesota’s Ryan Flynn, Flynn continued to struggle and resist the official as he pulled him away, nearly punching the assistant referee in the face. Oshie and Flynn each received double minors for roughing and 10-minute game misconducts, but Flynn received no penalty for resisting the official.

This need not continue. The NCAA ice hockey rule book is chock full of regulations designed to allow the on-ice officials to control all aspects of the game, including who is allowed to come on the ice at certain times for specific purposes. There’s an entire two-and-a-half-page section on abuse of officials that spells out the penalties that can be applied when players and coaches get out of hand. Unfortunately, these rules are not always enforced.

Some are aghast when a fight breaks out during a college hockey game because student-athletes aren’t supposed to engage in such activity. These incidents could be minimized if the officials would simply enforce the fighting rule as it’s written which is: “A player shall not fight an opponent or participate in a fight, on or off the playing surface (punching or attempting to punch is considered fighting).”

Note that nowhere in the rule does it mention the dropping of gloves. If a player attempts to punch another player for any reason – even if the other player throws no punches in return – a fighting major and game disqualification should be assessed to the puncher. Just imagine how many players would be tossed out of games if this rule was enforced as written. It wouldn’t take long for fights to become rare occurrences.

It would also help if officials broke up fights the moment they had the opportunity to do so and worked harder to protect players when they're attacked and in defenseless positions. But we've seen fights happen that could easily have been prevented. And we've seen players exacerbate volatile situations by coming to the aid of their teammates as officials looked on with seeming indifference to player safety.

There are other more mundane details that would help avoid conflict and tension. For example, the scrum that broke after the second period ended during the Feb. 16 game at Engelstad Arena between UND and Denver University was a direct result of the Pioneers coming off the bench and on to the ice. This caused the few Sioux players left on the ice to traverse the large gathering of Denver players. A bump led to a punch which led to a melee and a fight.

While allowing players to come on to the ice at the start of an intermission isn’t against the rules per se, under the section on protocol, the NCAA rule book states: “Game management officials should avoid having teams cross when entering or exiting the ice surface. Conferences and institutions are encouraged to establish a written policy for visiting teams.”

In other words, it’s recognized that allowing players to mix during the course of a game invites the potential for trouble, as was demonstrated during the UND-Denver game. However, two weeks later when UND played conference opponent St. Cloud State the Huskies engaged in the same practice of pouring on to the ice at the end of a period. Why?

Didn’t the WCHA learn from experience? Players should not be allowed to come on to the ice between periods when it’s totally unnecessary and has been demonstrated to cause problems.

As UND coach Dave Hakstol is fond of saying, “Control what’s yours to control.” The WCHA has the authority to control the games it schedules. The NCAA rulebook gives on-ice officials the tools they need to maintain control of the games in most situations.

However, if the participants are allowed to flout the rules and the league doesn’t use common sense to minimize volatile situations, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the officials find themselves having to use greater amounts of force to establish or regain control of a game. Such actions wouldn’t be necessary if players and coaches respected the authority and the ability of on-ice officials to do their jobs properly. But based on what I’ve seen this season, that’s not the case.

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