Dan Esdale has been around hockey long enough to know that change doesn’t come quickly or easily, especially when it comes to modifying a longstanding rule.
Still, Esdale knows that some things are worth fighting for when you feel it’s in the best interest of the game and its players. That’s why the former president of Massachusetts Hockey and current USA Hockey Junior Council chairman has been a tireless campaigner in support of a rule that prohibits a short-handed team from legally icing the puck.
When asked about the 3-year-old Mass Hockey pilot program designed to improve skill development, Esdale has a three-pronged answer as to why one of the oldest and largest associations in USA Hockey has implemented such a dramatic change.
“What we’re trying to do, No. 1, is get kids to know how to read options. No. 2, is to learn how to play under pressure. And No. 3, in doing so, is to elevate their comfort zone and know what to do with the puck,” said Esdale, who also wears the hat of associate coach-in-chief for Mass Hockey.
The pilot rule, which applies to all games played from the Bantam level on down in the Bay State, states that “a team playing shorthanded shall not ice the puck. Upon an icing call, a faceoff will be held in the defensive zone of the offending team.”
Over the years, coaches and administrators throughout the sport have discussed the advantage a short-handed team has when it can just fire the puck the length of the ice. Well, that ability has now been taken away, and Mass Hockey hopes the chain reaction will result in players with advanced stick-handling and decision-making abilities.
“The idea behind it is we’re just trying to develop cognitive and offensive skills of players, especially our defensemen,” Esdale said.
“Watching over the years, in a typical short-handed situation, the first command that comes from the bench is, ‘ice it, ice it.’ There might be options there but the kids aren’t allowed to take advantage of them. That age category is really the incubator for creativity, and we don’t want to stifle it.”
Better skill development might also come on the other side of the puck. If the short-handed team can’t manage to clear the puck – or gets victimized by an icing whistle – suddenly there’s more time for the team on the power play to hone its craft.
“At the younger levels, icing the puck can take away a lot of the power play. It takes a long time to ice the puck,” said Jim Geraghty, who coaches the 495 Select Under-18 team in the Bay State.
“You have the continuity of a real power play. It gives the kids on the offensive team a chance to run a power play and work it around and create more excitement. Everyone likes being on the power play.”
Change can be difficult, especially when you’re dealing with hockey coaches who have been mentoring players a certain way for the better part of their lives. But Esdale has slowly seen a warming trend over the years as players, coaches and parents become more comfortable with the change.
Now it’s a matter of convincing others that the change does what it is advertised to do. USA Hockey’s board of directors voted to table a vote on making it a national rule, seeking more data on the benefits of the change. Still, Esdale is excited that the rule was brought back for another season in Massachusetts.
In addition to the Mass Hockey pilot rule, USA Hockey is entering its fifth year of not allowing short-handed teams to legally ice the puck during its Player Development Camps.
“We wanted to see defensemen handle the puck and make plays,” said Kevin McLaughlin, USA Hockey’s senior director of youth hockey.
“So far it’s lived up to our expectations by creating better puck-handling defensemen, and more offensive opportunities for the short-handed team because they’re not able to just fire the puck down the ice when they’re under pressure.”
Of course, there are always holdouts. John Beatty of Westford, Mass., coaches the Nashoba Youth Hockey Peewee A team. He and his assistants are still against the rule – although it’s more because of the age of his players than the actual rule itself.
“I could see it at the younger levels, but I think Peewee is too late,” he said. “You should be allowed to ice it. At this point, these kids are in middle school. They’re on the edge of high school and they should be playing by the high school rules.”
Both Geraghty and Beatty noted that the older the kids get, the more likely they are to still ice the puck rather than commit a costly giveaway. Coaches are more willing to take their chances with a faceoff in their own zone than a costly defensive error.
Joe Mallen, Mass Hockey’s coach-in-chief, is not a 100-percent convert to the rule, but has a rebuke for the coaches stubbornly holding out hope that the rule will disappear.
“The one thing I can tell you from running our coaching clinics is if you ask a lot of the coaches about the rule, they’ll say, ‘the rule stinks,’ ” Mallen said.
“And then I’ll say to them, ‘is it not awful when you’re on the power play, but then it is awful when you’re on the penalty kill?’ … Whenever there are rule changes, and I’ve been coaching for 30 years, you tend to look at it from only one side.
“When you’re on the other side of it, you don’t complain. It’s the same rule for both teams – and people need to look at that and realize that you’ve got to develop the skills and techniques and tactics to be able to use that to your advantage.”