When instituted for the 2006-07 season, USA Hockey’s initiative to call infractions to a higher standard was as well-intentioned as it was bold.
It wasn’t long, however, before the newly minted “new standard” suffered from the perception that hockey had been replaced by a hail of referee whistles and player processions to the penalty box.
As the 2007-08 season dawns, we can look back to see that while there were some initial growing pains, a great deal of progress was also made as players, coaches and officials found their way through the effort to clean up the action.
Most famously, the National Hockey League began calling the game this way in 2005-06. One year later, USA Hockey picked up the baton. The handoff may not have been flawless, but there was an air of inevitability, if not necessity, to the transition.
“When the NHL stayed with it through the halfway point of the [2005-06] season, and on through the playoffs, not only were we surprised, we were very, very pleased,” said Dave LaBuda, who enters his first season as USA Hockey’s national referee-in-chief after serving in that capacity in the Central District for 16 years.
“When they went to an entire season before us, we felt all the factors were right for a similar standard.”
It wasn’t all fun and games in the beginning. Not long into the 2006-07 season, news of USA Hockey’s movement had found its way to The Wall Street Journal in an October piece that could hardly have been considered positive. Whoever said “no publicity is bad publicity” didn’t work in youth sports.
Undeterred, however, USA Hockey officials felt as if they had embarked on a worthwhile journey as they defended a positive cultural change.
“We’re trying to focus the game back on the skill development of the players – individual skill development as well as team development,” LaBuda said.
“What we hopefully will end up with is a game that is much fairer and safer, and, most important, it’s fun to play again. ... It is still going to be a competitive game. It still is a contact sport. What we’re trying to do is bring back the element of skill.”
Of course, with so many moving parts to the initiative – players, coaches, parents, and officials – the initiative courted complications. While there were numerous videos and demonstrations on how the game would be called, everyone involved would need to learn the new rules definitions on the ice.
“At the beginning of the year, there were numerous ‘Why is that a penalty?’ questions,” said Kevin Loftus, a Level 3 referee entering his seventh season wearing stripes in St. Paul, Minn. “Coaches had to adapt, referees had to adapt and, above all, the players had to adapt. As the year went on, everybody adapted. To me, it got to be a better game.”
Between the officials and the players, however, coaches, some of whom relied to varying degrees on interference as a coaching philosophy, were caught in the middle. Often presented with a delicate mix of providing a positive
environment for their players, developing skills and also winning games, theirs might have been the most unique of the pressures. Many coaches found themselves walking a fine line.
Sean Berens, a Michigan State University standout in the late 1990s who wrapped up a professional career overseas in 2005, seems to have navigated it well as a coach with Team Illinois.
“You have to take a step back and remember what you’re in it for,” he said. “Number one, it’s the development of the player, first and foremost, at the minor level. You’re not in it for wins and losses or a job or a promotion or anything like that.”
With one year of experience, the backing of USA Hockey, the continued commitment of officials and similar sentiment across so many levels of the sport, Year 2 may be the best year yet in the modest history of the new standard. Of course, players, who should sense all of the above, should note it would behoove them to continue to play by the rules.
“The Standard of Play is one of the most significant initiatives that has ever been implemented by USA Hockey,” said president Ron DeGregorio in August.
“While not without its challenges, the results have been highly successful and played to positive reviews from players, coaches and fans alike. As we move forward, it is important for everyone to realize that this initiative will continue in earnest.”
Among the believers, Berens sees the process leading not only to better hockey, but also to better hockey players, and looks to the future as an opportunity for coaches to groom more skilled play in an environment that now rewards it.
“We want to produce as many upper-echelon players as we can. And the only way you do that is by giving them the time and space to be creative at the minor levels,” Berens said.
“This is where coaching changes. You can watch minor coaches and it’s systems after systems after systems at the youth levels. Let these kids have some creativity, try something new in practice. If you try it in the game and you mess up, no big deal. You’re not going to be impeded by someone of lesser skill.”
In Year 2, LaBuda would like to build on the foundation of 2006-07, continue to see officials, players, coaches and organizations hone the standard, and move to focusing on areas of the ice as much as on specific infractions.
“Our goal this year is to pick up where we left off and continue to refine the standard as we know it now,” he said. “Basically, everyone has a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish, and now we’re refining different aspects of the game — things like play in front of the net, or one-on-one battles along the boards, those kinds of situations.
“With the officiating seminars and the videos that we’ve made, it looks like we’re on the right track again. We’re making it clearer to the community and we think we’re going to have an even better season this year.”
Entering its second year, the initiative has moved beyond well-intentioned and toward the realm of the well-executed.