By Russ Bitely
Many of the hockey articles you read focus on the players and with all due respect they should. Without the players we would not have a game -- simple as that. Although some writings will uncover a coach or perhaps a GM, and maybe even trials and tribulations of an owner. Normally you don't pick up The Hockey News, Boston Globe, Toronto Sun, or upload the latest from NHL.com or USCHO.com on the men who may in fact have one of the most difficult jobs in the game of hockey -- the on-ice officials. Well maybe that's a good thing because it means they are doing their job well. As the old saying goes, "A great ref is the one you don't even know is on the ice during the game."
As a player you really do not notice officials because your intent is focusing on your game and how as a team you will defeat the opponent. Again, the only real time your eyes and ears may perk up to notice the stripes is when a "bad call" is made or perhaps if the ref gets in your way during play. As a coach, your concentration is making sure your players are performing to their maximum potential, albeit coaches viewpoint behind the bench is different from the players on the ice. The hockey mind is trained to keep a watchful eye upon the referees, make sure nothing goes missed, and also persuade the gentlemen blowing the whistles to give any advantage possible to your team. Competition is competition.
With all this NCAA college hockey conference realignment at the Division I level and so much debate over the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) versus the college game, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to get the perspective from the men who "make the call." In keeping with today's two-man system, I recently spent some time interviewing two head ECAC Hockey officials, Mike Baker and Pete Feola, discussing the rules of the college game, direction of NCAA hockey, their personal experiences of the college hockey atmosphere, and then some. Ok, ring the bell as school is back in session.
Examiner Question: You are out there blowing the whistle every night and obviously see and hear a lot. How can we make this game of hockey better? What rule change would you like to see if any for the game? Hybrid icing, stricter rules for head shots, larger rink sizes, etc.
Mike Baker: I think the one rule change I would make is smaller goalie equipment. If you look at a picture of a goalie from 15 years ago and a goalie today the difference is dramatic. The argument I have heard for the new equipment is to protect the goalie from the harder shots that are coming from the new composite sticks. The technology for goalie equipment has evolved just as much as the stick technology and you could stop a bullet with the new goalie equipment and not get hurt. In addition it is lighter than the old horse hair pads of the Tom Barrasso era. The size of the goalie equipment has changed the ability to score goals from outside the top of the circles and the result has been teams just "packing it in" in front of the net. This shuts down the speed of the game. Teams cycle in the corner to try to get a close scoring opportunity and it is boring hockey to watch. The application of the rules in recent years sped up the game and the size of the goalie equipment slowed it down.
Pete Feola: I think that the game is fine the way it is. It shouldn’t be so complicated, especially when we are trying to increase the fan base. Most people don’t know the rules of the game and when we add things like hybrid icing, the people who do know the rules start to get confused as well. I do think that we need to continue to severely penalize the head contact, it is a problem. I don’t understand how some people in media can say “that the player put himself in a vulnerable position, or should have had his head up”. We need to change that mentality/culture.
Examiner Question: So much discussion over head shots at NHL, NCAA, CHL, and youth levels. Is it a problem of "lack of respect" like many people say, poor instruction/coaching, evolution of the game getting bigger & faster, protective equipment, or perhaps a combination of them all?
Baker: Head shots have become a big problem in the game recently with the size and speed that players play at today. My opinion is that the equipment that the players have today has created a sense of invincability and that leads to a lack of respect. When players have a helmet, facemask, neck gaurd, eargaurds and hard plastic elbow pads, they play as if they are indestructable and throw their body around with out thinking about the consequences. I am encouraged by the NCAA's stance on hits to the head and the result it has had on the college game. By putting in a mandatory 5-minute major and game misconduct to any hit directed at another players head, the number of head shots have definetly gone down. The NHL has to take a similar stance. Also, the new helmets and the public awareness of the symptoms of concussion have helped to protect players.
Feola: I think that it has a lot to do with the players getting bigger and faster, but I also believe that with the equipment that kids wear now the feel invinsible.
Examiner Question: Speaking of respect and invincability. What is your thoughts about having the college players were half shields? Yes, no, maybe...
Baker: My opinion of college hockey players wearing a half shield is that it is a great idea. The argument against is that it will be more dangerous, but anyone who has played the game at a high level knows that thats not the truth. Facemask make players feel invincible. They get their sticks, elbows and the puck up, and that leads to problems. When you make players accountable for their own safety the game changes. You will see a more skilled game. It will reduce the amount of head shots. It will also better prepare those players making the jump to the next level.
Feola: I am in full support of it. I have seen plays in college hockey where the player delivering a body check doesn’t have any care about what happens to him because of all the protection. There was a play in the NCAA tournament last year where a player for Yale was thrown out of the game for a contatct to the head penalty major. In my opinion, that player doesn’t deliver that check if he has a half shield on, because he is afraid of hurting himself by hitting the opposing players helmet with his exposed chin.
Examiner Question: What was the deal last year in college hockey with the crazy notion of not allowing teams to ice the puck on the PK as a possible rule change? Never understood where that thought originated from...isn't a power play enough to score.
Baker: The experimental rule of not allowing the penalized team to ice the puck is an interesting one. Why should a team that commited an infraction, got the penalty, now be "given a break" and allowed to ice the puck. The NCAA wants its new rules to add scoring chances. If a team can't ice the puck there are going to be more scoring chances by the team on the power play. Especially, if a tired penalty killing team ices the puck and then is not allowed to change. I actually like the rule.
Feola: I believe that the goal is to try and increase scoring and excitement. It also is intended to deter players from taking penalties. The power play isn’t enough they would like to see a goal scored on every penalty and then players would stop taking them.
Examiner Question: With College Hockey, Inc. established in late 2009 the college game trying to grow and market to Americans and Canadians. Recent news of Penn St. adding a DI program and now Nazareth College (Rochester) will also have a new D3 program. Do you like the direction of NCAA College Hockey? What do you think about the state of Division I college hockey with all the hype and conference realignment? Good, bad, or indifferent for the game...
Baker: I really like the direction of college hockey when they find ways to get more teams for both Men and Women. I am discouraged by actions like the one taken in the ECAC West DIII. When the NCAA takes away bids to its tournament and four of the top teams in DIII are more or less eliminated from post season competion, then I have a problem with that. I think it is too early to tell if this is going to be a good move for college hockey. If it creates more teams then I am in favor of the move. The NCAA has created a great tournament with basketball with a multiple conference format and if they can do the same for hockey then it will be great for the game.
Feola: I do like the direction that college hockey is going. With the number of youths playing now, it gives more kids the opportunity to dream of playing college hockey. I think that the realignment is bad for the game. I believe that it is going to create more travel for the teams and it seems like the “big boys” are all playing together. The smaller conferences will struggle with attendance when they don’t have those “big boys” coming into their barn.
Examiner Question: Another hot topic throughout the college and major junior CHL ranks is the battle for the top prospects. Any thoughts on kids committing to college and then jumping to the CHL ranks in Canada? Do you think money is involved or just players making the best choice for their career?
Baker: I can not comment on players leaving college to go to Canada as I do not know enough about that system and what opportunities it offers. I will say that every kid should pursue an education in addition to their hockey career and the college hockey system does that. As with most things in life it is not about the situation, but more about what you do with it.
Feola: I think that both money and the “pro” atmosphere of juniors are appealing. I have always thought that college athletes should be given an allowance if they play a sport. If a young player has a legitimate shot at making it to the NHL, the best place to learn the lifestyle is juniors. The reasons are they have more games, more travel especially during the week, and the teams are run as businesses (trades, playoffs, pay).
Examiner Question: I am sure you guys have done some big games like college conference championships, NCAAs, and the pro game too. Pete, I know you officiated last year's Olympics in Vancouver and have done several World Junior Championships. Do you have a favorite experience or level of game enjoy more than others?
Baker: I have been very fortunate to be involved in some great games and exciting atmospheres. The college and professional games have their own characterstics that make them great. The college games have great emotion and school spirit and the pro games have some great fights. If I had to pick my favorite game from college it would be my first game in DI between Cornell and Harvard. The rink was packed and the pregame activities were like nothing I had ever experienced. Because it was my first game I was nervous and the place was vibrating with the noise before the teams hit the ice. When the home team came out the band started playing and it got even louder. During the starting line up annoucements for Harvard the fans all got newpapers and faked reading them and when they finished the announcement they all threw the papers on the ice. Then after the anthem the home fans threw all different kinds of fish at the Harvard players. It was an atmosphere I will never forget. Then there have been the weekend series between St. Lawrence and Clarkson back when it was one referee and two linesmen when you could lose 15 pounds going up and down the rink while the sold out arenas go crazy. Any game between Rochester and Syracuse 10 years ago was assured to be crazy, but without a doubt any playoff game in any league have been the best to work.The level of intensity goes up by 10 and the pressure to make the right call or no call is magnified.
Feola: I really have enjoyed my international experiences, and each one has been different. I truly enjoy the passion that the college player shows every time out. The pros play so many games that they can’t bring that same passion every night. The most memorable game, maybe atmosphere is better word, was the gold medal game at the World Junior Championship in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2003 between Canada and Russia. I don’t think the fans sat down or stopped cheering the entire game. It was electric.
Examiner Question: Where is your favorite venue to officiate at? The packed college campus environment of the Corner Crew at Ritter (RIT), Cheel Arena's (Clarkson) bell ringing, the design of "Yale Whale", or is it an AHL arena?
Baker: My favorite rink to work is Lynah Arena in Cornell. There is no better atmosphere with the band playing and the students section going through their cheers. The games are always sold out and the fans know the game. RIT is another great place, but it has been a while since I have skated a game there.
Feola: I have only been to a few AHL arenas, Rochester, Binghamton and Syracuse. They all have potential to be great buildings, but not on a nightly basis. Rivalry games in the ECAC are my favorite. It doesn’t matter what building it is in but, more the matchups. Union vs RPI, Cornell vs Colgate and Clarkson vs SLU are my favorites!
Amazingly enough in just a few short weeks, the college hockey season will be in full charge. The summer months have certainly been engaging and interesting for the college hockey fan with realignment anticipation and the continuing saga against its Canadian major junior friends to the North.
Although one thing I believe has stayed consistent throughout my years as player and spectator in college hockey -- the officiating. Not only have I had the pleasure to interview Mr. Baker and Mr. Feola, but have also seen the boys in action patrolling the goal and blue lines at a campus near you. It's not easy following the game of hockey and as a ref it is even more difficult, especially when you are constantly being evaluated by coaches and officiating staffs. There is no "War Room" in Toronto like the NHL. Just a few zebras on skates using their hockey instincts to make the right call.
Follow Russ Bitely for more hockey news, analysis, articles, and perspective on Twitter: @russbites