April 05, 2020

Hitting from behind fuels debate> Some question new hockey rule for high school

Last year when a high school hockey player hit another from behind, the player had to serve a two-minute penalty. This year, a player called for the same infraction must sit for 12 minutes – two for the hit and 10 for misconduct.

Hockey official Mike Tuell said the stricter hitting-from-behind penalty was implemented by the Maine Principals’ Association in an effort to prevent the dangerous hit that drives players into the boards. Such an accident can cause head and spinal injuries.

The danger in a head-first impact was made frighteningly evident when Yarmouth native and former Boston University player Travis Roy was paralyzed after he went to check an opponent and slammed head-first into the boards at Walter Brown Arena in Boston on Oct. 20, 1995.

But in high school hockey where teams play 15-minute periods, a 12-minute stint in the penalty box for merely a brush can seem extreme.

Bangor coach Bill Schwarz feels sitting a player for almost an entire period is too much.

“I can understand why it’s enforced, to cut down on injuries,” Schwarz said. “But the way it’s enforced has a lot to be desired. Sometimes if a player goes and hits a player [who] turns their back, and the player can’t stop, the referee gives a 2-and-10. I think that’s overkill.”

Brewer coach Tim Kilroy adamantly defends the stiff penalty that can hurt a team. For the past three years, Kilroy served on USA Hockey’s National Body Checking Task Force studying the hitting-from-behind penalty.

Kilroy said the penalty must be called whenever it occurs. Period.

“It is a national concern. There is just tremendous injury potential. It needs to be eliminated,” Kilroy said. “A player needs to be able to be in control with the body.”

Kilroy faced his first debate over the penalty in Brewer’s first game. When a Witch was hit near the boards by a Thornton Academy player, the player was called for hitting from behind and given a 10-minute misconduct. Kilroy protested.

He believed the hit was extreme and should be enforced by a rule put in place last year. The rule states that if a player receives a vicious hit along the boards, the player has to leave the game, sit out the next game, and take a five-minute major.

“He went nose first a foot below the dasher,” Kilroy said. “Even to the lay person that doesn’t understand hockey, it was a serious infraction and it wasn’t called. There are two officials out there. They should be able to concur.”

When Kilroy questioned the call, the coach was hit with a bench penalty. Later, Kilroy watched the game tape and saw his player fall close to the boards. He sent the tape to Tuell, and Tuell agreed.

“We use that as a learning experience and move on from it. Two officials applied the rule wrong,” Tuell said. “I haven’t seen that too much. We’re trying to be together on this. I don’t think the mistake will be made again. At least by these two officials.”

Tuell, who has served as the liaison between the MPA and hockey officials since 1991 and works as a Hockey East linesmen for college games, said in time the rule will be more affective.

“On any given moment, there are infractions,” Tuell said. “There is a lot going on to keep track of. Probably, the toughest thing is: Did the guy turn at the last minute?”

Shades of gray

Tuell said if officials feel a player can not avoid contact and skates into another player who turns at the last minute, it is not hitting from behind. In that case, the call could be charging or cross checking, which only puts a player in the penalty box for two minutes.

The problem is, an aggressive hit from behind and an unplanned collision can look alike.

“If a player is going for the puck, and another one turns, they’re stuck. It hurts somebody, especially the teams that are not too deep,” Schwarz said.

In Bangor’s game against Lewiston, Bangor pulled within 4-2 at the start of the third period when David Lisnik scored. Lisnik was then called fro hitting-from-behind. Lewiston went on to win 6-3.

Lisnik argues if a player must sit for 12 minutes, the hit should be flagrant. However, Lisnik also was uncertain, and there lies the confusion in the call.

“It’s kind of hard to say, it is dangerous,” Lisnik said. “People can control what they do. WIth mine, you couldn’t really control it. The kid just turned right around. There was nothing I could do.”

Lisnik said he sees players turning on purpose to draw the penalty and the only determinant in deciding whether the penalty is boarding, cross-checking or hitting-from-behind is the referee.

“If a referee doesn’t like you at all, you get a 2-and-10,” Lisnik said. “You get a referee that hasn’t had any problems, you get off easy with boarding.”

Kilroy said players turning at the last minute rarely occurs.

Orono coach Greg Hirsch said coaches would never tell a player to turn their back to draw the foul, because of the danger involved.

However, Schwarz isn’t so sure.

“If a coach is smart, they will tell a kid to turn their back and protect the puck,” Schwarz said. “Hopefull a kid will get a two-and-10. If he takes a hit against the board, when he’s against the boards with the puck, he won’t go very far. I would never tell them to take a hit three or four feet away.”

Kilroy said to eliminate the gray area, officials should call hitting-from-behind when it occurs, rather than calling lesser penalties to protect the players or the tempo of the game.

“A hit from behind is no longer a judgment call,” Kilroy said. “It isn’t a gray area. Any time you have a hit from behind it needs to be called. Maybe it was a hit from behind, maybe it wasn’t. At least the player will be thinking what action just took place. I would rather err on the side of conservatives then allow to go on.”

The Last Word

Officials began to call hitting from behind more last year, even though there wasn’t the two-and-10 rule. But while a few coaches say officials are calling the penalty more consistently, others disagree.

“Last year, I thought there was too much gray area,” Hirsch said. “Some officials were not calling it. There were a lot of judgement calls. This year, they’re on the same page.”

However, Lisnik said officials still are calling the penalty only occasionally, making it frustrating for players to know when it will get called.

Schwartz doubts time will make officials more consistent in calling the penalty. He said the nature of hockey is that players play the body, penalties occur and there is always room for debate.

Kilroy hope coaches will support the penalty and remove the debate. He said if players are disciplined whenever they committ the penalty, they will refrain.

But Waterville coach Norm Gagne, who has coached high school hockey in the state for 25 years, said not every coach will discipline their players – just the way not every official warns players to encourage safe play.

“I don’t know if some officials have the love of the game. They’re out there on a power trip,” Gagne said. “They want to be the main attraction, not the kids.”

The good news is some say players are refraining from committing the penalty to avoid the two-and-10 call.

That hurts

Brewer senior defensemen Mark Blaine is an advocate of the penalty, but said when he was called for it, he merely pushed the player from the side.

“That’s a lot of time to miss,” Blaine said. “Our team doesn’t have much depth. When we have a good player in the box for 12 minutes, it’s really a loss.”

If a team has a limited number of players, then the loss of one player – or a go-to leader – strips a team of its offensive power.

Orono’s Hirsch said this year he has plenty of Riots, but he still has seen the new rule affect the way his players play.

“I’ve seen guys on my team who you thought might be prone to play the body, turn away a little if they see a player’s back and number. Over the course of [last] season, they became more aware of it,” Hirsch said. “I haven’t really seen a lot of aggressive hits into the boards.”

Orono freshman Jake Hedstrom, who was called for hitting-from-behind early in the season, said it is hard to be aggressive which the new rule.

“I know in the back of my mind, if something goes wrong, I might get a penalty,” Hedstrom said. “I try not to do big hits for anything like that. I just knock the players off the puck.”

Blaine also said the veteran Witches now show more control on the ice.

But Lisnik said the brutal penalty does not change the way he plays, nor does he think other players will play more tentatively. The Rams are instructed to follow the rules, but to play aggressive and play the body. Schwarz said if players are not aggressive, they could get hurt worse.

“I think there is as much hitting as last year, if not more,” Lisnik said. “I notice a lot more hitting in the Lewiston game. In the Waterville game, there was a lot of cross checking.”

At the same time, Lisnik said that once the two-and-10 has been called enough, players will begin to watch for the call.

“I didn’t think when [I got the penalty] it was a hit from behind, the way the hit was,” Lisnik said. “Now, in Waterville, I was hesitant. I made sure when I hit it was right square in the chest. It made me really watchful for that.”

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