Adrenaline can cause curious human behavior. We’re familiar with the stories about people lifting cars with their hands to save pedestrians trapped underneath.
So in that way, with terror as motivation, I think I could retrieve a puck on occasion on an NHL penalty kill and fling it down the ice. The pain of teeth shattered by a forechecker gone berserk would be slightly dulled by the attaboys I’d receive from coaches and teammates en route to the dentist’s chair.
This is precisely the point.
The NHL is too good, too competitive, and too elite for any bum to walk in off the street and do anything successfully. Yet since 1937-38, a rule has been in place to do exactly that.
It does not take much skill to corral a loose puck and send it, perhaps by clanging it off the glass, rapping it off the boards, or snapping it to the other end. In fact, it is a boring step back to hockey’s go-go pace, to the degree that the sport punishes the practice during five-on-five or man-up play by calling for an icing infraction.
That a team guilty of taking a penalty is then granted a green light to ice the puck is the definition of preposterous.
“How often in sports,” asked Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, “do you actually change your normal playing rules to benefit the team that was penalized?”
To that end, USA Hockey has introduced a new rule for players 14 and younger for 2017-18. Penalty-killing teams will no longer be free to slingshot the puck down the river. Referees will call icing on shorthanded teams, just as they do during even-strength play. Upon an icing, the faceoff will take place in the defensive zone, giving power plays another chance to try a set piece off the draw.
The aim is to encourage U-14 players to read opposing power-play setups, think about what to do, and execute skilled plays: a D-to-D pass, a soft chip off the boards, or a floater to a streaking teammate. It is a far better thing to hold on to the puck than give it away, even if a 200-foot clear allows players to get off for changes.
“We want our kids to play with and handle the puck,” Martel said. “Puck possession is a big thing in our sport. We don’t like to see rules that encourage kids to blindly grab it and throw it away. You work pretty hard to get it. This rule actually encourages that. You listen to the anxiety that sometimes parents and coaches create from the stands, whether it’s, ‘Get it out,’ ‘Get it deep,’ ‘Ice it.’ Players’ first instinct when they get ahold of the puck is to get the head up and perceive what’s going on around them. The [old] rule doesn’t necessarily encourage that.”
The new rule will be moot for some levels. It’s not easy for the typical mite, for example, to put enough muscle behind the puck to launch it to the other end of the rink.
But at the bantam level, the rule should encourage players to practice puck-possession skills on the penalty kill that usually remain under lock and key. This happens organically in pickup games anyway, Martel notes, citing the example of when nine players are present for pond hockey.
“You’d play five-on-four, and if the four guys got ahold of the puck, they probably wouldn’t throw it away,” Martel said. “They’d make a play and have fun. This really is a rule that encourages them to do some things that are good and healthy in our sport. It actually encourages them to think a little bit and make some plays. Try to work the puck out to the red line before you throw it in, instead of grabbing it and just throwing it. You need a little more touch to put it into space behind the defenders to get it out of the zone. It’s teaching them to perceive and think a little bit.”
It’s likely that parents will find the new rule most perplexing. As Martel points out, the parental chorus is the same at every rink, regardless of how well they understand the game. Every parent knows what to shout when a penalty killer settles the puck. They will not be able to yell at their children to send the puck up the boards anymore.
While parents struggle to learn, players, as they always do, will adapt. So will coaches.
“If I’m dealing with players 12 years old and I see a teammate get the puck in the corner — we’ve got time, not under high duress — I’m sending the weak-side net-front forward straight up the middle of the rink,” Martel said. “I’m telling my guy the first thing to look for is maybe throwing the puck at the center-dot red line to try and spring somebody. The point of the rule is to make plays. The other team could be in bad defensive posture on a turnover, especially on the power play, because you’re not thinking, for the most part, about defending. The alarm bells don’t go off fast enough.”
Some of today’s U-14s will become tomorrow’s high-end players. Leagues such as the USHL have experimented with the rule. But major junior, college, and pro leagues have yet to give it a shot. They should.
The NHL needs scoring. Last season, the Bruins led the league by killing 85.7 percent of opposing power plays. The league average was 80.9 percent.
The NHL has adjusted special-teams rules before. Most notable, however, was one that aided the penalty kill instead of the power play.
Before 1956-57, players had to serve the entirety of two-minute minor infractions. The Canadiens would eat opponents’ lunches on the power play. On Nov. 5, 1955, Jean Beliveau scored three power-play goals in 44 seconds. The following season, a player serving a minor could leave the box if a power-play goal was scored.
It’s time the power play got some love.