Despite a handful of whiny sound bites from frustrated players, the man in charge of the NHL’s crackdown on faceoffs and slashing says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
Even if it wasn’t, Stephen Walkom insists his officials will continue establishing a standard of enforcement that won’t waiver during the regular season or Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Yes, the playoffs.
“So far the reaction has been pretty good with coaches and players – it’s in the skilled players’ best interest,” said the NHL’s director of officiating, who adds that none of the league’s 31 general managers have lodged complaints either.
“By playoff time the players will have changed the way they set up for a faceoff. With the slashing we’re going to treat it just like hooking out of the 2005-06 season and we don’t want to change our standard in the playoffs.”
Players and fans have every right to be skeptical games next spring will be called as tightly as this year’s pre-season penalty-fests.
However, what shouldn’t be questioned is whether the players will learn to conform sooner rather than later. Just as they did after the lockout when hooking and holding needed to be eliminated.
“We knew at camp we’d have to live through some pain and that’s what all the chatter is about,” said Walkom, who sent out a recent memo to his officials thanking them for their diligence, urging them to continue their vigilance against slashing and faceoff deterioration.
“We’re not looking to call a bunch of penalties – we’re trying to give the players instruction and get their buy-in and conformance to get a better faceoff. We know the players are the smartest on the ice and they will adapt.
“As far as slashing around the hands, they need to fear doing it. Keep your stick closer to the puck. It will take time to change habits. That’s our mandate in pre-season and during the season and playoffs.”
As he has told his officials, who’ve sent a steady stream of players to the penalty box all preseason, “If you do see it we’ll support you when you call it.”
They’ve seen lots of it.
The faceoff crackdown is simple: line up with both of your skates outside the markings or get waved out without warning. If the replacement player does the same, he’s penalized.
“This one we let slide a little bit so the pain is greater,” said Walkom of the two crackdowns.
“We took the cheating out of the faceoff and put the skill back in, as well as making it safer for the players and linesmen. All we’re really doing is shoring up a rule that we let slip. From 1996-97 (when the faceoff markings were introduced) to today we allowed the fairness and integrity to deteriorate to the point if we allowed it to continue it would just be a rugby scrum.”
With players often head-butting, flailing on the ice and getting tangled up with linesmen with more regularity, the risk of injury kept growing. No longer, said the competition committee, which asked for a change.
Such risks played an even bigger role in the crackdown on slashes to the hands that cost players like Johnny Gaudreau and Marc Methot playing time last year following high-profile incidents.
“I think it was important that we called the rule more closely to the way it’s written to deter the hacking and whacking to the hands and, worst case scenario, injury,” said Walkom, who said the players and GMs agreed was getting out of hand.
“I know, for a lot of people, it doesn’t look like much, but when you break a finger six to eight feet from the puck it means a lot to the player.”
And to the fans who lose that player.
“I don’t blame the officials for letting it slip – ever since we started calling the hooking and holding in 2005-06 this new tactic has evolved,” said Walkom, who makes endless parallels between the early pain of the post-lockout crackdowns a dozen years earlier that have unquestionably made the game faster and better.
“First it was a tap, then a whack, then a chop. All of it was done around the hands to impede a puck carrier and to deter a more skilled player from getting a shot off. It crept in and everybody is behind us to minimize it in the game.”
Even if it means the flow of some pre-season games has been disrupted with some teams racking up double-digit penalty counts.
“Sure, it is painful at times because it’s a parade to the penalty box, but changing behaviour doesn’t happen overnight,” said Walkom, who recalls the players quickly adapting the last time officials tightened things up.
“Coming out of the lockout we had four hooks a night and now there’s just one so most of that is through conformance. We just have to be on the look for the next tactic.”
Walkom feels players no longer have to worry about getting used to the style of individual officials as the mantra now is “one for all and all for one – our job is to serve the game and not ourselves.”
“It’s just a matter of time before a guys whacks someone and we all say, ‘yep, that’s a penalty.’”
We’re not there yet, obviously.
But when we get there, Walkom believes the flow of the game will actually improve.
“Eventually we’ll get a more expeditious faceoff,” said Walkom, well aware of the moans from fans as faceoffs are prolonged.
“There won’t be a delay for defensive stick down and begging them to get their feet back. Is it going to be perfect? No, But we needed to shore it up.”