Hug it Out, says Burke


    An active voice in the betterment of the sport of hockey, Brian Burke has three rule change proposals according to Darren Dreger. And I like all three, with some trepidation.

    Among the three, the bear hug is the rule proposal most likely to garner serious consideration from fellow general managers in wake of the ongoing rise in notable hitting from behind incidents. Don Cherry endorsed this proposal last night on Coach’s Corner, and while that by no means qualifies it as brilliant, there’s little doubt Burke has accurately pointed to the root cause of the hike in hitting-from-behind incidents and posed a solution worth looking at. The post-lock crack down on obstruction has led to an increase of what Burke calls “billiard ball” hits, where players who’ve had the “don’t clutch or grab” mantra drilled into their minds by coaches and referees are bumping instead of wrapping up the opponent.

    As easy as it is to pin the blame on hitters from behind (and I don’t deny incidents have occurred for no other reason than to injure), many of these supposed villains are victims of the system. It is a defenceman’s paid duty to impede the progress of an attacker and win puck battles by wiping him out against the boards, and their options in performing the task have been more or less reduced to poke checking or a well-timed hit. What’s happening in many recent hitting from behind incidents is that a defenceman is catching an opponent off-balance, plowing into them in a vulnerable position, or the receiver of the hit is turning at the wrong time. In all incidents but the most blatant attempts to injure, there is blame to be shared by both the giver and the taker.

    Burke points to Matt Lashoff’s hit on Ruslan Fedotenko as a paragon of the billiard ball hit.

    It is certainly a strong argument that had Lashoff known he wouldn’t be putting his team at a man disadvantage for two minutes, he might have wrapped up Fedotenko and taken him into the boards instead of plowing his shoulder through Fedotenko’s back. I think it’s worth mentioning that some players do find cleaner ways through using their legs to angle, and employing their body in such a way to outmuscle the opponent without hitching on for a water ski. But when one player is on the end of his shift and the other is fresh, or one player happens to just be flat out slower than the other, or one has a positional headstart, it might be expecting a bit too much of Lashoff in that instance to not commit to the hit, especially when you consider the competitiveness of these players and the speed at which they’re moving. Even if you’re of the opinion it’s not unreasonable, something clearly isn’t getting through.

    For those reasons, the bear hug should be seriously considered by the league for implementation, but it doesn’t come without some major question marks. Players will push boundaries in any attempt to gain any form of competitive advantage. Assuring the line doesn’t blur and we see some form of return to obstruction isn’t an easy task. What’s the appropriate distance from the boards for a player to legally wrap up his opponent? How long can he hold on? Communicating clearly to the league’s officials the answers to these questions would be of the utmost importance in effectively implementing a rule with such room for judgment and subjectivity. Undoubtedly, smaller, quicker teams might pose some opposition to this one.

    The other two rule changes are ones which immediately strike you as strange. My first response to the imposition of a ringette line above the face off circles in the end zones was to laugh because I am a minimalist when it comes to ice paint. Burke’s proposal is that the team breaking out must pass the line before making a stretch pass or play will be stopped for a two-line pass violation. The logic behind the proposal has validity – since the removal of the red line for purposes other than decoration, defencemen have been given an easy out when pressured by forecheckers to simply chip the puck off the glass in the general vicinity of a teammate and hope it develops into a play up ice. The result, Burke argues, is a reduction of skill in the game, and while Dreger did not include this detail in his article, he assumably also disagrees with how it is making life too hard on the modern forechecker. Otherwise, for a team with more sandpaper than skill, Burke should probably keep quiet until he leaves the Leafs front office.

    This is why I like the rule in addition to being a fan of a team which avidly forechecks – contrary to many immediate reactions, it will not reduce offense while also heightening the required skill level among defencemen. The redline was removed to increase the number of breakaways and odd-man rushes by catching the opponent in transition. While this does happen, the more frequent result is the one Burke is talking about. By making a team in transition advance the puck to the ringette line before making the stretch pass, the easy out is reduced while forecheckers are rewarded with increased likelihood of turnovers, meaning offense likely won’t reduce. In addition, the frequency of the stretch pass for breakaways may not take too great of a hit. Eliminating the easy out will encourage forecheckers to continue to pursue the puck-carrying defenceman instead of peeling into coverage or trapping. By this logic, the neutral zone would open up, and despite making a team do a bit more work to execute the stretch pass, it would feasibly remain a part of the game. Obviously, this is a bit of long shot if for no other reason than it being so strange, but who would’ve thought pre-lockout we’d eventually see a trapezoid behind the goal.

    Proposal number three is to in effect introduce a mano-a-mano race element to the game when it comes to icing. Where the debate has raged between automatic (no-touch) and touch icing, Burke has a hybrid solution wherein icing is waved off if the forward outraces the defenceman to the hashmarks of the face off circle. The rule is beautiful in its simplicity to enforce. Not a whole lot changes for the referees. Like they had to judge who touched it first, now they simply have to shift their focus to deciding who reached the harshmarks first.

    It is actually quite the happy medium of a solution. Purists argue for touch icing to remain because of the excitement the race for the puck brings. This still exists, although less the slamming into the boards. The other common argument is that stoppages will be too frequent – this obviously is no longer applicable. The injuries, meanwhile, are sure to reduce because any contact at top speed will occur further up the ice, giving a fallen skater the chance to brace himself or slow down before hitting the end boards.

    However sound in logic, I doubt it garners serious consideration at this stage. Where the concussion is becoming a problem for every general manager and many past and current players increasingly raise awareness of it’s long-term effects, the occasional although graphic leg snap doesn’t appear to be affecting quite enough people personally to see anything done about it.