SUN Hockey Pool

Not hooked on rules ... yet

DON WILCOX -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:50 AM ET

Sad, but true: There is now more hooking, holding, obstruction and interference in minor hockey than at the NHL level.

And getting rid of it will be a mammoth task, if and when Hockey Canada moves to tackle the issue.

Among those who would like to see the crackdown extended to the grassroots level are a significant number of its game officials ... referees and linesmen hearing complaints from fans, coaches and players who think the rules of the game for 11- or 12-year-olds are identical to those of the NHL.

The reality, however, is that no crackdown has been ordered below the pro level. In fact, minor hockey officials were instructed to maintain the status quo during their mandatory fall training clinics.

That means -- skill level obviously aside -- the minor game doesn't look much like what people are seeing on their TVs these days.

"Minor will get there, but it will take a lot longer to work out. It will be more of a five-year plan than a one-year thing," said Tom Sweeney, who at age 20 is already a referee instructor and one of the top young officials in the region. "It will definitely be a slow, gradual change. You've got minor hockey refs who've been reffing the same way for 20 years and they're not going to change right away."

And how have they been reffing for those 20 years?

"We are still saying at the clinics that it's okay to not call stuff, to let things go," said another top young official, Dave Lauer, 23, who is Nepean's referee-in-chief and admits he is "finding it kind of difficult" to be caught in the middle.

"(The NHL crackdown) hasn't really changed the way I call it. (But) I hope it does."

The reasons minor hockey lags are many and varied.

First, the NHL hadn't even been on the ice when this year's direction came down from Hockey Canada, and many people want to see if the crackdown continues in the pro game or if things revert to the old ways.

Second, the NHL put a tremendous amount of time and money into training and education for its officials, a task that will be much more difficult in the minor game.

In Eastern Ontario alone there are about 1,600 officials ... and reffing is a hobby for virtually all of them, not a full-time job. They work in more than a dozen districts, with slight variations to some of the rules and rule applications, both by district and by league.

Chris Kit, the ODMHA's new referee-in-chief, said even among game officials it's tough to get agreement on what should and should not be called.

"It is hard to even get a consistent level of understanding of what 'consistency' should be," he said. The high turnover rate among officials (about 30% per season) and the fact that about 60% of those in stripes in the ODMHA are aged 19 and younger are other factors that make it tough to implement rapid changes.

"We have a lot of young adults we are trying to teach things that someone in their 40s, and at my level of experience, we still can't figure out," he said. "And, how do you get the message out to Nepean, to Kanata, to District 4, District 3 ... there are just so many games going on?"

But there is hope. In fact, that youth factor could be the game's saving grace, because it seems many minor hockey refs want to see changes happen.

For some, it extends beyond just the application of penalties to the whole philosophy of officiating, which is exactly what the NHL has aimed for.

It goes to the heart of something called "game management" and the philosophy in minor hockey now is not only to take into account what actually happens on the ice, but also when it happens and the situation in the game.

'SHOULD BE A PENALTY'

"Hockey is the only sport where you can trip a guy in the last minute, or in overtime, and it is not a penalty ... it should not matter at what point in a game it happens. It should be a penalty," said Sweeney, who laughed and said he'd "probably get in trouble" for saying that.

"It's a consistency thing. They (coaches and players) want a penalty in the first 10 seconds of a game to be a penalty in the last 10 seconds."

The NHL crackdown has also emphasized this, though fans will know there do still seem to be variations in how things are called early in a game from how it's done late in a 1-1 game. Even without any firm direction from Hockey Canada, though, Kit says game officials might already be starting to take things into their own hands.

"I can already see a difference in junior hockey. Especially in the CJHL and the Jr. B league, things are being called tighter ... I'm going to try not to change too drastically, but I am calling a bit more stuff and a bit earlier in a game."

And when change does come in the minor ranks?

"Better late than never," Sweeney said.

minorhockey@ott.sunpub.com


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