Thanks to a new anti-obstruction initiative, college hockey fans are beginning to see things this season that once were the hallmarks of their game. Speed, for example. Wheeling and dealing along the boards. Wings flying through center ice without a backchecker in tow. "A couple of coaches told me at a meeting this week that it's starting to get back to old-time hockey," Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagne says. "Everyone acknowledged that the way things had been going was disturbing."
The way things had been going in the college game was just as they'd been going in the NHL: Welcome to the WWF on ice. Smothered by defenders who clutched, tugged and hooked with impunity, playmakers and scorers were becoming less and less visible. The game was beginning to look like rugby. "Our players and coaches have been watching the NHL for the last 10 or 15 years, and that style of play crept into our game," says Jerry York, head coach of top-ranked Boston College. "We got ourselves in the mentality of no harm, no foul. It took someone like Tom Anastos to get our heads out of the sand."
Anastos, who's been commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) for the past six years, is also a Detroit Red Wings season-ticket holder. "The more I watched both college and pro games, the more I walked away asking myself, How entertained was I?" The answer, he decided after attending last season's Frozen Four in Boston, was, Not very. "I had the NCAA send me a video of the games," Anastos recalls, "and our supervisor of officials broke down 30 plays involving obstruction. I sent the tape to a dozen people, and everyone agreed that all 30 were penalties. Only one was called, and only one other was identified as a penalty by the television announcer. The other 28, nobody said a thing about. This is the stuff we've tolerated for years. It was like watching a basketball player dribble down the floor and allowing someone to wrap his arms around him."
Spurred to action by Anastos, the NCAA commissioners, rules committees and supervisors of officials declared war on obstruction fouls. Specifically, they've targeted hooking in the neutral zone, calling even a brief tug that negates an attacking player's advantage. "We've taken the nuances out of the play for the referees," says Bertagne.
"The most radical change is along the boards," says Anastos. "Holding along the boards, pinning, grabbing--we've been tough on that, and it's working."
Through the first five weeks of the season college referees have called an average of 19.4 penalties per game, up 35% from a year ago. And they're calling obstruction fouls during penalty kills, leading to a big increase in five-on-threes. The number of goals scored during two-man advantages has more than tripled from this point in the season a year ago, from 23 to 74. Not all coaches see this as a good thing. "You used to have to maim somebody to get a five-on-three," says Jamie Russell, head coach at Michigan Tech. "They're making so many calls it's hurting our player development. If you're not on the power play or penalty-killing unit, you just sit there. Hockey is a game of flow. It's hard to get a flow going when 40 of the 60 minutes are power plays."
Hockey officials expected such criticism. "We knew there'd be frustrations with these standards as players and coaches adjusted," says Brian Hart, director of officials for the CCHA. "But we've seen a marked improvement in the game already. The players are free to skate. The hockey's more exciting."
"It's taken years for the game to erode to this point," says Anastos, who swears the obstruction fouls will be called right through the playoffs. "It's not going to be fixed overnight. But I've gotten a lot of e-mails from fans saying, Please stick with what you're doing because the game's getting better." ?