Right about now is the time for all collegiate puckheads/debate enthusiasts to strap on the rope burn-proof gloves and rev up the tug of verbal war. After all, that’s what all of the bystanders of professional hockey have perpetually engaged in ever since the NHL took on the two-referee system nearly a decade ago.
Earlier this summer, after using it as sparse experimentation throughout last season, the NCAA has opted to go with the four-head zebra crew full-time in Division I hockey and has not ruled out doing the same for Division III in the not-too-distant future.
The pro v. con contests that have periodically stormed hockey talk shows, columns, and fan forums –always with the same sort of ammo for both sides, it seems- hasn’t left the college game untouched all this time. As far back as 2003, the likes of Maine head coach Tim Whitehead have come forward to make a case for change. That year, the then nine-member Hockey East coaches’ panel put forth five yays, two nays, and two indecisions to bring on the second ref.
“The two referee-two linesmen system would give us better ice coverage and it would also allow us to add some young referees to the old boy network,” Whitehead said at the time to the Bangor Daily News. “We felt one referee can’t cover the entire ice sheet and the two assistant referees were being distracted by their multiple responsibilities so they were missing some icing and offsides calls.”
Somehow or other, though, the popular vote found no fertile ice, primarily owing to a lack of similar innovatory interest amongst fellow Division I conferences. When the topic resurfaced again last year as chiefly nonconference contests gave the two-ref format test runs, it was taken for a surefire insititution come 2008-09, which it will now be thanks to the June ruling by the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Ice Hockey Rules Committee.
PC men’s coach Tim Army, who experienced the NHL’s advent of the system as a Washington Capitals’ assistant, is “thrilled” by the college game’s option to finally follow suit.
“This system will allow for a stricter enforcement of the rules, thus enhancing the overall speed of our game,” he said this week. “The emphasis on speed will create more open lanes that can be exploited with quick puck movement. Speed and possession will produce better transitional and cycling play which will increase offensive activity in the scoring areas resulting in greater goal production.”
Chances are, Army is thinking beyond the one night last season that his Friars had two orange-armed officials presiding the action, an 8-0 pillaging of Brown. Greater goal production, he says? Touché.
Then again, the nub of a dissenter’s case was in full throttle that night. Brown, a team that averaged 7.13 penalties per game in 2007-08 was whistled for a hefty 13 two-minute minors in the Mayor’s Cup. The Friars were flagged nine times, an even four above their game-by-game median of five.
Doesn’t that presage a menacing nightly rate of whistle-stops? Not in the long run, Army prophesies.
“At first there will be a rise in penalties,” Army conceded. “But eventually coaches and players will make the necessary adjustments. Most importantly, the game will be impacted by the most highly skilled players as the ice will open up for their speed and intuition.”
For what it’s worth, the PC women attested to that philosophy when they took a double-dose of two refs last November over a two-night visit to Ohio State. Game 2 of that series saw a gratifyingly slim three Friar penalties after there were twice as many the previous night.
The skeptics are bound to persist with the contention that –increased calls or not, sharp determent of daring infractions or not- an additional set of skates on the ice will inevitably clutter the action. There’s that, and the notion that a pair of refs might breed the danger of deterimentally differing interpretations of the rulebook. But as Army’s viewpoint underscores, people have been saying that since 1998 and all the while the NHL has pressed on with no standout pimples.
“That has not been a problem in the NHL,” he said. “With that representing the best league in the world, I am certain that won’t be a problem in the NCAA.”
This article originally appeared in the Friartown Free Press